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Wake Up

Wake Up and Shake Up!

Isaiah 55. 1-9     Luke 13.1-9

Have you heard the news?

Often, we had heard the news and it was rarely good, and if we hadn’t heard it, we braced ourselves to listen.

On this particular occasion, we had heard the news and were later in the day to see a newsclip of the head of the suicide bomber in Jerusalem’s popular but ruined, Mahane Yehuda fruit market, being picked over by religious Jews with tweezers and polythene bags looking for scraps of bodies.

Often there we just sensed it, the anticipation of tragedy even before we heard the sirens. The traffic slowed and the car horns fell silent. It was like that on the Temple Mount on one October morning – the news travelled fast – at least 30 dead, many more wounded near the Al Aqsa Mosque, shot by troops.

Have you heard the news? We don’t know if Jesus had already heard the news but they told him anyway, each person probably vying to do the telling – “Pilate’s soldiers have murdered worshippers in the Temple, right tin the middle of the service and their blood flowed in the gutters with sheep that had just been slaughtered.”

Same place and similar circumstances. In Jesus’ time it was Jews who were killed by Pilate’s soldiers. On the 8th October 1990, it was Jewish soldiers who did the killing and the tragic cycle of violence between the opposing communities continues – each atrocity, massacre or incident accompanied by mutual denunciation and recrimination. Welcome to first century Palestine, where feelings ran deep, extremism thrived, and the future of the country looked precarious.

I wonder how those who told Jesus of the massacre expected him to respond – with denunciation of the Romans, the statutory tearing of the robes and prayer that God would speedily rid the land of the occupying forces or, and we are told elsewhere that Jesus needed no one to tell him what was in the heart of man for he knew it altogether (John 2.24,25) – a pronouncement on what must actually have been the wickedness of those whom Pilate’s soldiers butchered. Popular contemporary Jewish thinking went like this:  Really bad things don’t happen to really good people and what happened back there in the Temple was really bad so the people killed couldn’t have been really good!

Things aren’t what you think they are

The ghastly Eliphaz, one of Job’s ‘comforters’, took this line when he went to visit the unfortunate, disaster-smitten Job, (Job 4.7) and Jesus’ own disciples on seeing a blind man asked, “Master, who sinned? This man or his parents?” (John 9.2) “Neither,” replied Jesus on that occasion. And here, anticipating just such a judgmental attitude in those who had told him of Pilate’s latest outrage, he rips into them and their smug, tidy theories. “Do you think that because those Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did or those 18 who were killed when the Tower of Siloam fell. Do you think they were worse than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you that unless you repent you will all perish just as they did” – by the edge of a Roman sword and under the crushing weight of falling masonry. Nothing less, said Jesus, than thorough- going repentance and the total reorientation of their lives from their reckless and doomed nationalistic aspirations back to God would spare them from the catastrophe towards which they are rushing, and which he longed might be avoided.

And here, a brief reflection on Jesus’ teaching.

There is about much of it both an aching tenderness and an almost terrifying severity. “Come to me all who are heavy-laden and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble of spirit” (Matthew 11.28) – echoing the magnificent invitation from Isaiah 55 read earlier in our service and contrasting starkly with Jesus’ words later in the same Gospel, addressed to people who considered themselves God’s favoured ones. – “I never knew you! Depart from me.” (Matthew 7.23)

So here in Luke, the urgent call to repentance and the yearning that the disaster Jesus so vividly – and in the parable of the fig tree hints is so very near (Luke 3.6) – is expressed very tenderly. Luke writes,” as Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed the days will come upon you (and they did come) when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side … and crush you to the ground and your children with you … because you did not recognise the time of your visitation from God.’ (Luke 19.41-44) Do we?

Is it not possible that through the humiliating, protracted, confusing, divisive and painful time our nation is passing, God may not be seeking to humble us and remind us of the things that make for peace? Were not the opening words of our service today, ‘Almighty God’?

I clearly remember watching on the evening news the ceremony of the handing over of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997. The Union flag was lowered, the marine band played, the rain poured down as Governor Chris Patten and others sang, ‘The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended.’ It seemed a courageous and appropriate choice with its closing lines, ‘So be it Lord Thy throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires pass away.’

In God’s hand is the raising up and the putting down of nations which are after all in the words of Isaiah the prophet like ‘drops in a bucket’ – dust in the scales. (Isaiah 40.15)

After the Siege

Returning for a moment to Jesus’ grief over the fate of Jerusalem, it’s almost as if he can hear the Roman siege engines rumbling into place – see the archers drawing back their bows. What he foresaw happened; the destruction of the city was terrible and the suffering of its population unimaginable, but while many of Jesus’ warnings of judgment and disaster relate to the siege and the Jewish people, others relate to afterwards and surely to all people. They remain contemporary and urgent: ‘Take care! Be on your guard against every kind of greed for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ (Luke 12.15) In St Matthew’s account of the last public teaching given by Jesus before his arrest and trial, he warned of the dire peril of those who have, ignoring the plight of those who have not (though in the parable of the sheep and goats to which I allude, he puts it far more vigorously and bluntly than that). (Matthew 25.40-45)

Beyond Brexit?!

On the morning after the fateful Brexit vote, I was accosted in Palmer Park where I was walking the dog, by two nice Nepali friends, ex Gurkhas, who were deeply shocked and bitterly disappointed at the way the vote had gone. I was given an earful at the end of which one of them asked me with an utterly disarming smile, “Tell me, will be there be resurrection after Brexit?”

I don’t know. What I do know is that when we emerge from this nightmare, much larger and more pressing challenges await:  the probability of mass global migration provoked by climate change, the continued rapid depletion of the world’s natural resources, the relentless growth of population and much more.

Last week’s BBC Analysis programme looked at the likelihood of humanity living beyond the end of the present century. It made for sober listening. “We live as if eliminating all wild life would be rather a pity!” “Politicians are concerned about being re-elected and blind to the magnitude of the risks (confronting the world).” And memorably, “There may be no fish and chips by the middle of the century as fish stocks are exhausted.” (And if that is not reason to shape up and take action, I don’t know what is!)

I return to Luke’s Gospel and conclude with these striking words of Jesus:  ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say it’s going to rain; and so it happens. And when you see the South wind blowing you say, ‘There will be scorching heat;’ and it happens . . . you know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’ May God give us the courage and the wisdom to do that and without fear and in gentle trust to shape our lives and that of our Christian community accordingly.

Lament

Lament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jesus Calms the Storm

Luke 8.22-25: Jesus Calms the Storm 

2nd Sunday before Lent, 24th February 2019.   

Today’s gospel reading is the story of Jesus calming the storm.  I like to read around the passage a bit before starting on the sermon, and looked in Matthew and Mark to see if the same story is there; which it is.  Which got me thinking a little about why we have three books in the Bible that are quite similar.  So, a brief introduction on this before we get into the passage. 

This story, like may others, appears in all the gospels we call ‘synoptic’, Matthew, Mark and Luke, but not in John.  The word ‘synoptic’ comes from a Greek word that means ‘seeing all together’, and picks up that they all tell the gospel from the same basic point of view.  (Our English word ‘synopsis’ comes from the same root, but the meaning has developed on a bit.)  I found an interesting illustration of the overlap between the first three gospels; it is obviously a bit subjective, but it gives a good view of what they have in common.  

We do not really know why the synoptic gospels are the same.  Scholars have tried to deduce what has happened from what is in the gospels themselves.  The most common theory is that Mark came first.  Matthew and Luke came later and used Mark as a source, as well as using another common document called Q (from the German word ‘quelle’, which just means ‘source’.)

So this story also appears in Matthew 823-27 and Mark 435-41.  The Matthew and Luke accounts are very similar.  Strangely (if it did come first), Mark has a bit more detail than the other two, but is still has the same elements.  

Why are they different at all?  Well, they are from a society well before the printing press; even if something was written down there would not be hundreds of identical copies around.  Indeed, they would not have been written down at all to start with, just passed on by word of mouth.  It is actually surprising that they are so similar.  Clearly, the church thought that the events of Jesus life were important, and should be retold accurately.  

The common points are: 

  • Jesus and the disciples were on the Sea of Galilee in a boat.  
  • A fierce storm blew up, the boat began to fill with water and was in danger of sinking.   
  • Jesus was sleeping, so the disciples woke him up and said “Master, we are about to die!” 
  • Jesus commands the wind and the waves to be still, and there was a great calm.   
  • Jesus then says to the disciples “Where is your faith?” 
  • Afterward, the disciples amazed and/or afraid.  “Who is this man, even the winds and the waves obey him?”

Not all of the disciples in the boat were fishermen, but presumably some of them were (it was someone’s boat).  These were people familiar with boats and water; it had been their livelihood.  But a real storm, in a small boat, can be frightening even if you are experienced.   

Even having done a fair bit of sailing, I find this picture scary.  And that is a boat that is pretty much watertight, with life-rafts if something goes wrong.  The crew are wearing lifejackets and waterproofs, possibly survival suits.  They have radios, and on the other end of the radios are coastguards and the RNLI.  Galilee is not the open sea, the waves are not as long or large as these, but they can be big enough, and steep.  The boats would have been plain and wooden, with no motors to keep you heading into the wind, just oars.  Soo you get pushed edge on to the waves, which rock you, fill the boat up, and you start to sink.   

[4] And all this time, Jesus was sleeping.  Straightforward human exhaustion, probably, after being with the crowds, teaching and healing.  He must have been in a dry bit of the boat.  Unable to sort out the situation for themselves, the disciples turn to Jesus.  I wonder if they were actually expecting him to be able to do anything?  This seems to be fairly early on in Jesus ministry, so they would have seen miracles.  But this is a storm.  This is the forces of nature having a go at you.  People are insignificant in the face of the power of the wind and waves.  They might have just wanted him to be awake before he drowned.  

He stands up, and orders the waves and the wind to be still.  And a great calm descends.  

The initial reaction would be relief, thankfulness for safety, relaxing as the danger recedes.  

But Jesus reaction is to say, “Where is your faith?”.  This seems to be asking a lot.  As you are about to drown, you might commit your soul to God, but to trust that he would save you?  

Afterward, rowing back to the shore because there is no wind, as the adrenaline subsides and they start to think over what has happened, the full force of what they had seen hits them.  This man just commanded a storm to stop.  Who is he?  What is he?  We too would have been stunned.  

Is this a real story?  We were exhorted not to believe in the supernatural a couple of weeks ago, but where does that leave accounts of miracles like this?  I have some sympathy with not trying to find supernatural explanations for things that can be explained naturally.  The church has so often put God into the gaps to explain things that we do not understand, and then along comes science – Galileo, Darwin, Newton, Hawkins – and it seems as if Christianity is being pushed backward.  God created the universe, so it seems unnecessary to have to have supernatural causes for our souls or the way God works within us; but that is a subject for a different sermon.  But this miracle is not a gap.  It is either made up, or an extraordinary coincidence, or it was a demonstration of God’s intervention.  Storms do calm down quickly, but for it to happen by itself just as Jesus commanded it is scarcely more credible than that is it a miracle.  We tend to think of people in the past or as less scientifically based cultures as being credulous.  But the disciples clearly knew this was not normal; the world does not behave like this; that is why they were so astonished.  They did not expect it, and saw the fact that it happened as pointing to something extraordinary about Jesus. 

What do we learn?  Most commentators draw metaphorical lessons from it.  Follow Jesus whatever he leads you into.  Don’t panic! or don’t panic because Jesus will care for you.  Cry out to Jesus if you are in need.  Look back at experiences and learn from them.  It is all good.  

But it was an event, not a parable, not teaching.  Though it was presumably recorded, written down by Mark, because of what it showed about Jesus.  I would suggest that you ponder it over the next few days, and see what it says to you.  For me it is yet another pointer to Jesus’ divinity.  That the saviour we are privileged to know, to whom we talk in prayer, whose love we claim, is far greater than we generally hold in our thoughts.  

The question it leaves me with is Jesus’ comment, “Where is our faith?”  I, like the disciples, am so far off reacting as Jesus seems to have expected them to react.  Which itself leads to prayer, repentance, and the possibility of change. 

 

Jeremy Thake
St. John & St. Stephen 

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The Beatitudes

Luke 6 v 17-26

Last week Gary opened his sermon by saying that in Café they were looking at football as a metaphor for theology with it being very much from the supporters’ point of view the going through the pain, the sense of shared experience, and the faint insistence of hope. Then the letting go the accepting of the bigger story and the faith to live that out.

So, to keep the football theme going. This time it is not about the supporters and their experience it is more about picking the team and setting out the basic guidelines. Like me when you were at school you might remember kicking a ball around in the playground at breaktime. There were no real rules perhaps just a group of you either kicking the ball or each other with jumpers at each end for goal posts and that was about as sophisticated as it got.

Things were a bit different in the PE lessons the teachers were there trying to bring a bit of organisation. My experience of PE teachers was that they didn’t really say much. They divided you up gave you some pointers and basic rules and then relied on their whistles. If things got really out of hand you might have got a whack across the backside with a plimsole.

But football analogies only go so far!

Jesus in our Gospel reading is speaking to the disciples, those he has chosen and he gives them four promises and four warnings. Happiness and Woes or Blessings and Curses. When you look around the world today this is all seems upside down or is it the right way up?

The first one – Happy/Blessed are you poor.

Take a moment to think, what is the dominant force in our western society. I would venture to suggest that it is money. Some might say politics but I think economics outweighs and influences more. But it is not money on its own it is what it leads to in us, the desire to consume, to have; the way we judge others; is it by what they have. We value others and assess their status by how much people have and their ability to use it and perhaps look down on those who don’t have it. Richard Foster in his book “Money Sex and Power” says when properly placed and effectively functioning money can enrich human life in wonderful ways. Food, shelter, education etc. The demon of money is greed and also maybe fear of losing or having none.

This first beatitude is not necessarily about giving things up or that we have to go without. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship says “Therefore Jesus calls his disciples blessed. He spoke to men who had already responded to the power of his call, and it is that call that has made them poor, afflicted and hungry. He calls them blessed, not because of their privation, or the renunciation they have made, for these are not blessed in themselves. Only the call and the promise, for the sake of which they are ready to suffer poverty and renunciation, can justify the beatitudes”.

This is hard but it is the circumstance of Jesus disciples in every area of life. There can be no security, no possessions, no spiritual power, no experience or knowledge. We need to be ready to give up things that stand in the way of our answering Jesus call. His call is the sole focus.

The next is – Happy/Blessed are those who weep/mourn.

John Stott in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount talks about this as the second stage of spiritual blessing. It is one thing he says to identify and acknowledge what is standing in our way of our answering Jesus call but it is quite another to grieve and to mourn over it. Confession is one thing contrition is another.

Is Jesus saying those who mourn and weep understand and feel the pain of the world and the part that they play in causing it. Is this what true repentance looks like?

One of my current favourite writers is Barbara Brown Taylor who has written a very thin book (only 72 pages) but is heavy on content. The clue is the title which is – Speaking of sin. In one chapter entitled recovering repentance she talks about how easy it is for her to think of particular churches some that operate like clinics, where sick patients receive sympathetic care for the disease, they all share. It is palliative care for the most part. No one expects to be fully cured, which is why there is not much emphasis on individual sin. She says such churches subscribe to a kind of no-fault theology in which no one is responsible because everyone is.

She goes on that it is easy for her to think of churches that operate like courts, where both sin and sinner are named out loud, along with the punishments appropriate to their crimes. On the whole, the sinners identified by this full-fault theology tend to be people who do not belong to the church but she does know of one church that calls pregnant, unmarried teenagers up before the congregation to be publicly rebuked!!

True repentance will not serve either of these purposes. It will not work in the church as clinic because repentance will not make peace with sin. Instead, it calls individuals to take responsibility for what is wrong with the world – beginning with what is wrong with them – and to join with other people who are dedicated to turn things around. True repentance will not work in the church as courtroom either, because it is not interested in singling out scapegoats and punishing them. Instead, it calls whole communities to engage in the work of repair and reconciliation without ever forgetting their own culpability for the way things are.

If individual sinners are called to account, then it is never for the purpose of harming or humiliating them but always with goal of restoring them to life. What we need is a third type of church; church as community of transformation where members are expected and supported to be about the business of new life.

This is – Weeping to laughter!

A personal anecdote to illustrate. On Wednesday I was out on business with my work colleague Sharon. We had finished our meeting and were killing time at Birmingham New Street station. We were talking about our plans for the weekend – she has gone to Budapest for a romantic weekend. I told her I was delivering a sermon and what the topic was. She is not a person of faith but did attend church with her children when they were younger so is familiar with this passage and this story. She does not feel she can attend church anymore and considers the church to be hypocritical citing abuse scandals and the perceived lack of contrition/change and what she saw as the lack of action in helping the poor. I hope she can find faith but at the moment the church for her is a stumbling block.

This is the last one I want to look at – Happy are you when people hate you.

This, I would suggest, is a natural consequence, an outworking of what we do; what we say and how we live. If we are true to Jesus call and promise there will be an inevitable clash between the irreconcilable differences between the values of God and those of the world. Indeed, if we do not encounter opposition then that might be telling us something; are there things we need to attend to?

This made me wonder why was it that they killed Jesus? Was it because he proclaimed that he was God? I don’t think so. It had so much more to do with the way he exposed and upset those in power those who kept the majority of people away from God; those who imposed layers of rules/hoops to be jumped through just so people were kept in place and the few benefited. He told the truth and took the right course of action; they did not like it.

All this is eventually focussed at the cross and still there are words of forgiveness. There is no retaliation, no pretence, no self-pity. Jesus is sure of his path driven by love to set us free. As his disciples we tread that same path and are called to respond in the same way.

We can only do that if we acknowledge our poverty and kneel before God and allow him into all of our life. I would like to finish with a short story; an anonymous story from a book by Margaret Silf. It is called.

 

‘Rooms to Rent’

God was walking the streets, looking for a home for his son. He knocked on my door. Well, I suppose I could let him rent the little spare bedroom, I thought. He read my thoughts, I was looking to buy, he said.

Oh, I don’t think I really want to sell, I replied. I need the place for myself, you see. But you could use the back room. The rent’s quite low. Why don’t you come in and have a look?

So he came in, and he looked around. I like it, he said. I’ll take it on your own terms.

Once he was settled in, I began to wonder whether I’d been a bit mean. There he was, cooped up in that little spare bedroom. God must have been having similar thoughts, because he was there again at my door.

Would you have any more space now, do you think? He asked gently.

Well, I’ve been thinking, and I could offer your son and extra room to rent now.

Thank you, said God. I’ll take the extra room. Maybe you’ll decide to give my son more room later on. Meanwhile, I like what I see.

Time went on. I was still feeling a bit uneasy about this transaction. I’d like to give you some more room, I kept telling God, but you see it’s a bit difficult. I need some space for me.

I understand, God kept saying. I’ll wait. I like what I see.

Eventually, I decided to offer God the whole of the top floor. He accepted gratefully, on behalf of his son. Well, I can spare it really, I told him. I’d really like to let you have the whole house but I’m not sure…

I understand, said God. I’ll wait. I like what I see.

A bit more time went by, and there was God again at my door. I just want you to know, he said, that I’m still very interested in buying your house. I wouldn’t put you out. We’d work it out together. Your house would be mine and my son would live here.

Actually, he added, you’d have more space than ever before. I really can’t see how that could be true, I replied, hesitating on the doorstep.

I know, said God. And to be honest I can’t really explain it. It’s some thing you have to discover for yourself. It only happens if you let my son have the whole house.

A bit risky I said.

Yes, but try me, encouraged God.

I’m not sure I’ll let you know.

I’ll wait, said God, I like what I see.

 

Richard Harwood

 

 

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Baptism, Weariness, and the Start of Something New

Isaiah 6,  Luke 5:1-11

May I speak…

Well I’m relieved to see this week that some people did come to church today and not go off to the golf club, or somewhere else, instead!

On Monday at Café Theologique we looked at football as metaphor for theology…

Our table wondered about the faith of supporters. Trudging back from football.. bleak February Saturday afternoons, (or Sundays for some). “why do we keep doing this? Why put ourselves through this pain, this agony, I don’t know if I even believe in this team anymore…”

(echoes of FrV last week, pertinent ‘why even bother going to church?’)

(Maybe in other areas of life too?)

Yet still people come, still they buy season tickets.. still trudge through the rain, still doubt, still hope –  for why?

Is it something, I wonder, about history, identity, community, shared experiences, (highs and lows?).. is it something about the faint insistence of hope, (even hope against hope).

I wonder if there is something that is lost here – and yet something which is gained?

And I wonder if we can draw some inspiration from these two readings and also from our baptism today to help us ponder these things?

A baptism is always an exciting day for the church it’s a symbol and sign of a new beginning … It’s lovely to welcome our baby into the church of Christ… to celebrate with and friends and family too.. this wonderful moment.

The church calls Baptism a ‘Sacrament’, which means it’s like ‘a window on God’. It is a way of showing that this kingdom is already with us, in our midst, yet seemingly ‘not yet’. Jesus invites us all to ‘wake up’ and to participate in its coming.

Through these distinctive symbols; anointing, passing through waters of new birth, receiving a light it is like we are saying God will have changed this child’s story, and the signs tell us that the change has already taken place. Our baby will just need time, (we all need time), to face the full reality and responsibility of living fully humanly, (maybe that’s why we do church – to practice these stories of hope?)

A baptism is essentially a ‘letting go’, it is a way of saying that life will be different now.. it is a giving up on the things we make of ourselves… and instead embracing a new thing, a new identity in G-d.. (which happens to look exactly like our own beautiful lives – yet is fundamentally different; dancing to a different tune)

But the letting go.. remains.. something that mystics may speak of as giving up on ego, of realizing that we are not ‘the be all and end all’ of our own story.. there is more to us.. there is relationship, community, history and love.

In Isaiah. we see this mystical vision (merkevah) of God upon a throne –  the words we will sing later, “holy holy holy”, (“other other other”) remind us its a place of total wonder and awe.. a moment beyond words.

Maybe something of life, the wonder of new life born into the world, or the wonder of mountains, sea, a phrase of music or the tenderness of lovers..

The fragility and vulnerably of human life… maybe a moment in the forest listening to the soughing wind in the canopy of trees?

Or a moment of inexplicable awe, as with friends you realise you are loved!

the moments when ‘we feel how the saint feel about God’

Isaiah is awestruck – hand-clasping, gasping, wonder… “who shall I send?”,

“me, lord – though I don’t know how.. |

it’s like a feeling of being overwhelmed.. what else can we say but yes to the wonder and mystery of life?

And so too for the disciples as they are called by Jesus..

Something of the weariness comes across in this tale (a tale which is deliberately written to encourage a weary church in 80-90CE)

Luke has introduced Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet whose mission is to announce the coming of the Realm of God and to invite people to repent and join the movement towards the Realm (Luke 4:14-30).

There is a subtle aspect to this narrative connected to the “deep water” (bathos). This theme occurs several times in biblical texts in connection with the primordial sea, a powerful Jewish symbol of chaos. Luke perceives his world as a chaos: hostility between traditional Judaism and the followers of Jesus, the repressive behaviour of the Empire, and conflict within the church.

Almost a resignation, ‘if you say so’ … (look here wise guy, we know what we are about, we’re fishermen, we do this every day.. but ‘if you say so’..yes)

Something about being so tired, so worn out.. there is nothing left to give, and instead a surrender (of ego..)

Maybe letting to of our ‘self-made-ness’ a surrender to life’s complexities, its joys and pains.. no longer fighting…  giving in to something mysterious, unknowable.. that wonder speechless again… and then..

then..

Receiving something … unexpected.. something totally overwhelming..

Within the mysterious logic of G-d. Something connects weariness, resignation, letting go, to an overwhelming blessing. (Again – ‘how the saints feel about G-d’.)

Which brings us back to Baptism.. and not just Todays Baptism –

but to all of us… the expectations, we place on ourselves (and each other).. the ways that we make our world, and that world seems to punish us.. many voices, hopes and fears consuming us with noise and clamour.. voices calling us to be this or that, be like this, like that… economic demands, social demands, expectation, anxiety, depression… the weariness

And yet …

At the point of baptism.. as we find our selves.. not just head, not even body; but actually our whole selves… sinking beneath the waters of this world..

a giving up, in the letting go…

submerging beneath water, for a brief moment all the noises fade.. there is silence and a calm as water fills the ears and liquid holds us womblike… the voices are a distant mumbles…

And in that space.. the space of Isaiah letting go, in Simons letting go, in the Baptism and in the churches letting go.. a giving in to the mystery of God..

in that space a new voice can be heard; sweet, serene, deeply knowing, calling, “there is no other voice but mine now, you are mine now – you are loved, you have always been loved, you will always be loved, you are mine now and will be forever… you are loved…”

And maybe that is why we are here.. echoing those fleeting moments of hope and humanity, (how the saints feel about God) holding us, inspiring us and reminding us who we are …

Amen

GS Collins 10 February 2019

Picture – Bill Hemmerling Fishing for Souls. Oil on canvas, 60 × 10 in.

Nazareth Manifesto

A Nazareth Manifesto

Luke 4.14-21

Introduction

If you could summarise in a few sentences the very essence of your being – about who you are and what is unique about you – what would you say? Don’t worry, there’s no way I’m going to ask you to write that down, but it would be a very hard thing to do, wouldn’t it?

Many organisations, including big well-known brands, have to do this when creating their mission statement, explaining what is unique and different about them. I wonder if you can guess the name of the global organisations that have these mission statements?

‘To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time.’

‘To refresh the world in mind, body and spirit. To inspire moments of optimism and happiness ‘

‘Our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people. Our business idea supports this vision by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.’

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that these are not really about the product they offer – but how they transform our lives, inspiring our spirit, creating a better life for us, giving us moments of optimism and happiness.

And so we come to our gospel reading and what some call the mission statement, or manifesto, of Jesus. He begins by reading the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, foretelling the coming of a Messiah, to bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed and announcing that the time has come when the Lord will save his people. And after that he gives a one sentence sermon, the first recorded words of his public ministry: ‘This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.’ This words of Isaiah are Jesus’ manifesto; the essence of who he is, what he will do and how he is unique.

When you read this passage in Luke’s gospel, you might notice that it is written almost in real time, as if you are reading a play or a film script. It has the details of Jesus rolling up the scroll, sitting down, the people waiting with their eyes fixed on him. It’s making the point that what is important is happening now, in front of their eyes. The hundreds of years of waiting for the Messiah is now here. God is here now, it’s happening live, here with you.

But there’s something else unusual about this passage.

Did you notice in the Bible passage that it mentions almost in passing, where this is located? It says ‘Then Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.’ Jesus preaches his first recorded sermon in his birthplace of Nazareth.

I wonder if you have been to a church service where the location has been as memorable as the words you have heard? I remember one sermon I heard over 30 years ago. I was travelling out on the dawn ferry to the tiny island of Eigg, near Skye in the highlands of Scotland. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d find, particularly as a friend had cynically described it as ’60 drunkards clinging to a rock’. On the ferry was a Church minister, who encouraged me to attend his service that evening on Eigg. I went along with some reluctance, having heard my fair share of sermons of damnation and hellfire in Scottish churches. That evening in a corrugated roofed shack, with almost half the island present, he preached a sermon about God’s love and words of gentle encouragement that God was there with them; with them in that harsh and bleak environment in their forgotten community lost out in the sea. On the ferry back I asked him why he’d chosen that theme of God with us. He simply said ‘That is what they needed to hear.’

Here in the gospel reading, Jesus is returning to where he spent 90% of his human life, to a small agricultural town set in the middle of nowhere, far away from the busy trade routes. A place of probably only a few hundred people, scratching an existence from the land, dealing with the usual family problems, trying to get by whilst those in power far away seemed keen on messing up life for them. A forgotten place of ordinary people. When one of the disciples asked Nathanael to come and meet Jesus of Nazareth he replies bluntly: ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’

I wonder if you’ve ever considered why Jesus didn’t begin his public ministry until he was 30 years old? There are several good theological and cultural reasons why he might have waited so long. But could it also be because he simply enjoyed being with us: to live a life amongst the forgotten people of the tiny village of Nazareth:

to spend so much of his life not amongst the rich, the famous and religious, but living alongside farmers and carpenters. Just being with people, understanding and experiencing the messiness of life.

Recently I have been reading this book called A Nazareth Manifesto, written by Sam Wells, the vicar of St Martin in the Fields. He explains that there is an often neglected four letter word in the Bible that describes the essence of who God is and his desire for us: the simple word with.

And you can see how this word with is used throughout the New Testament to describe the essence of God’s desire.

From the birth of the son to be named Emmanuel which means God with us. It’s the Word become flesh to live with us. Of the person who in the beginning was with God … and without him not one thing came into being. A person whose final words in Matthew’s gospel are: Behold, I am with you always.’ To the very end of Revelation, the final epiphany or revelation of God’s eternal purpose for us: ‘Now God’s home is with people! He will live with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them.’’

And it’s this act of being with that lies at the heart of who we are too and our purpose as a Church and in our community. In our second Bible reading today from 1 Corinthians we heard about how we are all a part of the body of Christ. Each of us is unique, with our own personal journey and experiences we bring – all the struggles and skills, the joy and the pain. But it is by being with each other, valuing our diversity and differences, that we become Christ’s body.

Back in 1938, a research study was set up to try and answer the question: What makes a good life? It took 724 boys or teenagers from two different backgrounds – a group of students from Harvard college and another from one of the poorest areas in Boston – and set out to study what kept them happy and healthy through life. Amazingly, the research is still continuing today with around 60 of the original group still alive into their 90s and almost 2,000 children included in the research.

During that time and thousands upon thousands of pages of notes, the research has followed some as they have climbed up the social ladder and others as they have gone down it. Some who have become famous, even including one president, and others who have struggled with alcoholism and schizophrenia.

As the researchers go back to those who started in inner-city Boston, they are asked ‘Why are you still interested in me? My life isn’t that interesting’. In all their years of research, those from Harvard haven’t asked those questions!

Many started out in their teens thinking that they would gain happiness through working hard, getting lots of money, becoming famous. However, the clearest message they got from 80 years of research was this (and it’s advice which is as simple and as old as the hills):

‘Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.’

And it wasn’t about the number of friends, or even whether people were married or single, but about the quality of these relationships. Looking back at people in their 50s, it wasn’t middle-age cholesterol levels that told them how healthy people were going to be at 80 It was how satisfied they were in relationships, however messy and imperfect those were. It was having relationships where you could really count on others to care and support you.

The writer Mark Twain, as an old man, looking back over his life wrote:

“There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”

If being with is the nature of God and we are designed to be with others, then what does this mean for us and for our church? It isn’t always possible, but are there relationships that have broken down over the years that can be mended? And how are we called to be with others here in in our church or in the communities in which we live?

Those short words of Jesus’ sermon, just one sentence long, summarised the essence of his being and purpose: ‘This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.’ And even that can be summarised simply into one word: Emmanuel: that God is. God is with. God is with us.

Amen.

baptismofchrist-francesca (2)

Baptism of Christ

Isaiah 43.1-7                            Luke 3. 15-17, 21-22               

The Baptism of Christ – what a wonderful gift it is that Timothy’s baptism falls on this Sunday.

When I start thinking about a sermon, I go through the readings and try to notice if any words jump out at me.

‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’

These are the words that seemed to jump off the page when I read through today’s readings. And the words that come immediately before this are :  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.

‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’

Our names are very precious.  Our name is one of the first things we are given by our parents.  From a very young age we can recognise our name and we get used to answering to our name all through our lives.  Our name is basic part of who we are.  We have our own name and our family name.  To be called by our name means we are recognised as a person.  Even if we sometimes get those annoying phone calls trying to sell us something or saying they have heard we have been involved in an accident and would we like to make a claim.  But despite this, to be called by our name is important. And of course our name and identity is affirmed in baptism.

But before we get into Baptism, just a little more about these wonderful words from the prophet Isaiah.  They are addressed not to an individual – not to a Sarah or a Rebecca or a David.  They are addressed to the people of Israel as a whole.  They had been having a horrific time, defeated by powerful and aggressive neighbours they had been driven into exile and their capital city and the temple which was the centre of their worship and their identity had been completely destroyed.

Had God forgotten them?  Had they been abandoned and cast adrift in a violent world? What could they make of the promises to Abraham and later to King David that his kingdom would last for ever.  Where was God now?  So things were at a very low point.  But here the prophet is speaking words divinely inspired.  No. You have not been abandoned or disowned. You are still precious in God’s sight. God is the one who created you and God still loves you.  Do not fear.  Our Good News Bible says ‘I will save you’.  Another version – NRSV says ‘I have redeemed you’  I have called you by name.  You are my people.

They have been called by their name, their true identity as God’s people was secure.  This was not because they had earned this by living good lives.     But it says ‘because you are precious to me and because I love you.’

Wow!  To have the creator of the universe, God himself say these words ….  That is pretty special.  When I read words like that it gives me a wonderful warm feeling.  Like coming out of the cold into a warm place and suddenly feeling relaxed.  Or coming out of the cold swimming pool and relaxing in the Jacuzzi. ‘I have called you by your name and you are mine.’  If you take away one thing from this service, perhaps you can take those words.  And if life is very full or very challenging, you can come back to them and reflect on them. ‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’  Our identity is secure and we are God’s loved people.

Identity is important in baptism.  At first sight it is a bit puzzling that Jesus was baptised. Baptism is about repentance, turning away from all it is wrong, all that is dark and life denying.  All that leads to destruction and despair.  But the firm belief of the church from the very beginning is that Jesus was without sin.   Jesus by now was about 30 years old we are told.  He was a mature adult and on the threshold of his public ministry.  No doubt he had been thinking and praying and his vocation had been maturing, but now at his baptism, although he is not actually given a name, his calling and his identity are affirmed in dramatic fashion.  It must have been a very significant memory for Jesus as all 4 gospel writers include it.  The punch line, if you like, comes in verse21.  There was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my own dear Son.  I am pleased with you.’  Just like in the Isaiah passage, the identity of Jesus is recognised and affirmed.  You are my own dear Son.  So his identity is recognised.  He is not just the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, he is God’s own dear Son.  In some ways the baptism of Christ functioned as a kind of commissioning or even ordination.  From now on he embarked on those three very packed years of public ministry.

And notice the visuals.  This is a Trinity occasion.  The voice from heaven is associated with God the Father.  Jesus’ identity as the much loved Son is affirmed and the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove.   Father Son and Holy Spirit and every Christian baptism is done in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The baptism of Christ comes in the church calendar in the Epiphany season.  I sometimes think of it as being like when you drop a pebble in a pond.  The ripples spread out in all directions.  At his birth Jesus is shown to the nearby shepherds. Then with the arrival of the magi, the three wise men, Jesus is shown to non-Jews.  And now at his Baptism his calling is recognised and the divine approval is clearly signalled.

Timothy is not old enough to take his own decisions, so he is baptised by the wish of his parents and the promises are made by parents and godparents.  As he grows up he will need to decide for himself. But from now he has a new identity.  He is named and enrolled in the family of the church.  And his baptism is also a call to action.  Once again he will have to discern this for himself.

Attending a Baptism service is not a spectator sport.  It is a chance to remember our own baptism or to consider if that is step we would like to take. In recent baptisms here Gary has sprinkled us with water from the font as a way of including us.  Today we are going to try a different way.  After the final blessing and dismissal Chorate will be singing to us and you are invited, if you wish to come and dip your fingers in the water of baptism in the font and to make a sign of the cross on your forehead as a sign of remembering and recommitting to our baptism vows.  To affirm our identity as God’s loved sons and daughters. People who can tune into those words from Isaiah: ‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’   Amen

 

Richard Bainbridge

 

The painting shown was The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, painted around 1450

 

JonBaptistIcon

Light and Dark

Advent 3 –  Zephaniah 3.14-20, Luke 3.7-18

This Sunday we have lit a candle for John the Baptist.  Last Sunday when we were considering prophets in general we heard the first part of Luke’s description of John.  He was a prophet who preached baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  He was called to be in the wilderness (a reminder of the Exodus wanderings of the Israelites in the desert), preparing his people for the arrival of someone who would, like Moses, lead his people to a place of freedom.  Now today we find out what John actually said in his preaching.

Earlier this week when I told someone I would be preaching today they said, ‘I hope it’ll be cheerful’.  I made a non committal grunt, not having really looked at today’s passages.  When I read our gospel, though, I remembered someone I used to work with.  We would joke that he was good at giving tough encouragement.  By that we meant that when we ventured to talk about something that bothered us he would say the equivalent of ‘tough!’  John the Baptist’s preaching would seem to be of that kind, whilst  Zephaniah’s, usually doom ridden, turns out to be more cheerful in our OT reading this morning.  And this Sunday is intended to be cheerful – it was given the name ‘Gaudete’, Latin for ‘Praise’.

Advent has this unsettling mixture of waiting in hope for something wonderful that is going to happen, but also in fearful anticipation because when it does all our weaknesses will be exposed.  Or to use John’s language, trees that don’t bear good fruit will be cut down and destroyed and our chaff will be separated from our wheat, with short shrift being given to the chaff, and this, Luke says (v18) is the good news preached by John.  So I want to consider what is this good news about judgement, repentance, sin?

To do this I’m going to draw on a recent visit to our link diocese of Växjö in Sweden.  That diocese will be 850 years old in 2020 and I want to go back to a hundred or so years before that to events that led to its being founded.

Back in the 11th century the easiest way to travel around Europe was by sea, much of the country being covered by forests, and roads being little more than dirt tracks.  In spite of these challenges there was good communication between different parts of Europe – letters were exchanged, as were beautifully illuminated books and manuscripts.  One day in summer time a group of monks, including 3 nephews of the leader Sigfrid, set out probably from York across the North Sea in response to a request from a Viking ruler to their king, Aethelred, that he send missionaries to Sweden.  He wanted to be baptized.  This was in the early part of the 11th century.  By then there had been a Christian presence in this country for at least 700 years.  In Sweden, the country to which they were heading, less than a hundred.

When the group arrived they encountered a landscape much harsher than the one they had left.  The forests were thicker and therefore darker than the ones at home.  In fact they quickly learnt that the word ‘dark’ was invariably paired with the word ‘forest’ in the local language.  Not only that but the forest floor and any clearings were scattered with stones and boulders, some of them huge.  Growing crops was therefore backbreaking work.  There appeared to be no towns, but scattered groups of huts, often near a well around which the trees had been cut down.  It was to these newcomers a wilderness, not only geographically, but psychologically.  Fear was everywhere.  Fear of hunger – food was scarce; fear of what lurked in the forest – bears, wolves, or worse;  in the dark the stones could take on strange shapes…, fear of the gods (it was said that in a cosmic battle way back the gods had hurled these huge stones at each other, thus covering the earth below), fear of other human beings.

Sigfrid and his group saw themselves rather like John the Baptist, called to cry out in this wilderness, to make a way through it and to declare the good news that Someone greater than them was already here and reaching out to them.  They set up camp in a clearing near a well and continued as best they could the monastic routine they followed at home.  We can assume that this would have been Benedictine and therefore have been a balance of work, study and prayer – the prayer being communal and including the singing of the psalms.  Next to a well that survives to this day and is one of several named after Sigfrid, there is a boulder shaped rather like a lectern where it’s possible to imagine one of the monks standing, preaching to those who came to the well.  What would they have been preaching?  We don’t know.  We can only hazard some guesses as we notice particular features of worship in the Swedish church today.

Handling darkness is one of the big challenges in northern Europe.  Almost certainly Sigfrid and others would have announced Jesus as being the Light of the world.  John’s gospel was a favourite with the monastic orders and they would have drawn on that first chapter describing Jesus as a light shining in the darkness, the arrival of which, like JB, they were announcing.  The light shines in the dark forests, not only revealing the strange shapes for what they are – not trolls or evil spirits, but boulders and trees, but also challenging their power to generate fear.  Jesus is a light more powerful than any source of darkness, enabling us not only to confront darkness, but also our fears.  Confronting darkness with light is a big theme in Swedish churches during Advent.  Even people who don’t usually attend church are likely to attend on Advent Sunday when there are special hymns and candles everywhere and then on Dec 13, St Lucy’s Day, the whole country takes part in celebration of a saint associated with light – what they call Santa Lucia – and there are candlelit processions in churches, schools, hospitals, all over the place.

At a time when few people could read or write the monks would have taught verses of scripture by getting their hearers to repeat them until they knew them by heart.  When entering the forest they would then have those words about Jesus as the light to accompany them.  They could have said them aloud – shouting them if they wished!  Or, they could have sung them.  As I said earlier, monks sang the Psalms and psalms are full of rejoicing and of not being afraid.  Singing itself can be an antidote to fear.  And singing is a big feature of Swedish Christianity to this day.  When I was there a few weeks ago and Advent was mentioned in one of the meetings, the Swedish clergy spontaneously broke out into an Advent hymn that they had learnt from childhood!  Singing challenges the darkness.  Notice that Zephaniah tells his people to do just that in our OT reading.  ‘Sing, O daughter of Zion, shout aloud O Israel…never again will you fear any harm’, he says.

Light, of course, does have its down side, as I thought last week when a particularly bright day highlighted the smears on our windows and dust almost everywhere.  It shows us what’s wrong.  But Luke, in his narrative about JB, calls this good news.  It’s good news to see the smears and the dust because JB is saying that injustices are about to be put right by the one who is coming (hence Herod being so twitchy about him and putting him in prison), and that because he is there and is alerting us we have time to put our own house in order before he arrives.  The areas that JB homes in on are still relevant to today.

First to religious people (those calling themselves the children of Abraham), the equivalent of churchgoers like us, not to assume that somehow we are exempt from calls to get ready; to those who, also like us, have plenty and enough, to share with those who haven’t; to those who would have been regarded as beyond redemption by Jesus’ religious contemporaries – the tax collector and the soldier (we can perhaps think of contemporary equivalents)-, to avoid dishonesty in their business practice, and bullying and bribery (a certain high level American lawyer comes to mind this week).  It’s as though JB is saying that God’s scheme of things allows for time to put things right.  The other bit of the good news that we might not notice is that this opportunity is for everyone, not just the chosen people.  Who’d have expected tax collectors and Roman soldiers to be included in the new order that’s on its way?  Luke is the only gospel writer to continue the quotation from Isaiah earlier in this chapter to include the words ‘and all flesh shall see the salvation of our God’.

Like JB, Sigfrid and his companions would have given some basic ethical teaching as part of the preparation for baptism.  It would have related to whatever was the local culture, one that seems to have been very violent.  The good news was that there was now an invitation to adopt a new way of life and they were being offered the opportunity to prepare for it, to start turning towards the light and away from darkness, ready for baptism.  However, given the emphasis in Swedish churches on moving towards darkness carrying light and singing God’s praises in the face of it I think we can assume that those new Christians were not being told to avoid darkness, or ignore it, or worse pretend that it doesn’t exist.  Instead, like Sigfrid, like JB, they were to be light bearers in the darkness, to shine as lights in the darkness, moving into it, challenging it, emptying it of its power.  ‘Shine as light in the world to the glory of God the Father’, we say in baptism.

Sigfrid was called on to do this in a very particular way.  Once a Christian community was established in the Växjö area he moved on to other places to share the gospel.  While he was away there was a violent uprising during which his 3 nephews were murdered.  Reprisals were the order of the day and the local ruler ordered the perpetrators to pay a huge sum of money to the monks, guessing that they would be pleased to have enough to build a church.  This would indeed have been the case, but Sigfrid refused, saying that he preferred to offer forgiveness instead.  It’s on this kind of foundation that the current diocese of Växjö is built.

Time is running out for us to get ready for Jesus’ coming – less than 10 days!  But the good news is that the offer still stands.  We can ask how God might like us to prepare, and we can ask that he be specific, just as John was specific about what form repentance might take for different groups of people.  And God doesn’t reply, ‘tough’ like that colleague of mine.  Nor does he give us a deadline by which we have to respond.  He gently works with our desire to turn towards the light.  There is mercy.  So perhaps this is a cheerful sermon!

 

Christine Bainbridge

RC-shape of water

The Shape of Everything

Acts 3:13-19, Luke 24:36-48

If you have seen the film, ‘The Shape of Water’, you may have wondered about the title. The movie takes its name from Plato’s idea that in its purest form, water takes the shape of an icosahedron, a 20-sided polyhedron, evoking the idea that beauty has many faces. It’s a lovely, unlikely film where Sally Hawkins falls in love with a humanoid sea-creature, ugly to our eyes but beautiful to hers. The shape of water.

Luke is the author of the gospel passage we read this morning, or, as I am coming to like to call it, the Jesus story. In those few verses, right at the end of his account, Luke gives us a summary: ‘the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’. These few words have a particular shape, containing as they do suffering and death – crucifixion – on the one hand and new life – resurrection – on the other. The cross-resurrection message, Luke goes on to tell us, is at the heart of the message of forgiveness for the world. I want to look at this in a particular way that I hope we will find enlarges our understanding and our faith, using the metaphor of shape.

Firstly, I want to say that this book, the Scriptures, has itself the shape of death and life, cross and resurrection. Jesus tells us that “’…everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.’” (Lk 24:44-46) What he is saying is that his death and resurrection were clearly foreshadowed in the Scriptures: that is, the OT. Let me illustrate briefly with three examples. If you’re not familiar with the stories, I will reference everything and you can look it up later. It’s important to understand that Jesus’ death and resurrection didn’t come out of the blue: there was a shape to much of the OT – the shape of death to life. First, there is the grand movement of the Exodus: the captivity and slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt and their escape (Exodus 1-14) – from captivity to freedom, the shape of death to life. Then within that story is another story with the same shape, just so we don’t miss the point – the death of the Passover lamb and the horrible death of the firstborn in Egypt (Exodus 12) which led to Pharaoh driving them out of his country. Again, death to life. Secondly, there are many individual figures in the OT with this shape. The clearest is Joseph, poor boastful Joseph, literally thrown into a pit by his brothers, then sold into slavery, then unjustly accused by Potiphar’s wife, and thrown into prison. But God reveals dreams to him which he interprets to Pharaoh and he becomes ruler of Egypt. Slavery to redemption. Death to life, crucifixion to resurrection (Genesis 37-47). Finally there are the prophets. I will mention only one, the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, written around 700 years before Jesus’ birth, speaking of someone who is to come, a suffering servant: ‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed…yet he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light.’ (Isaiah 53:4,5,10,11). This remarkable chapter in Isaiah prefigures the coming of the Messiah, a servant who will mysteriously suffer in order to give us life, who will die, but will see new life. It traces the shape of the One who was to come, and in the person of Jesus the dots are joined together. Scripture is Jesus-shaped.

I’ve made a bit of a meal about the shape of scripture for two reasons. Firstly, Jesus does himself. No argument there! Secondly, because if we believe anything, if we say that we believe that Jesus, in his life and death and resurrection achieved our salvation, that is, our healing; and if we say that in Jesus, God himself was dwelling, and if we say, look, this didn’t happen out if the blue, it’s actually prefigured in the OT, then get this: not only is scripture Jesus-shaped, God is Jesus-shaped. I don’t know what picture of God you carry in your mind – an old man with a beard sitting on a cloud? A kindly uncle? A kindly aunt? Put those images away. God has the shape of Jesus. And as we reflect on his death and resurrection, it’s a blood-and-guts picture as well as one of new life, of victory – even if his hands and feet and side still carry the marks of the nails and the spear (John 20:27). Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians that ‘He is the image of the invisible God’ (1:15) – an image which includes all the suffering of the cross, death and resurrection. I am certain that when Ascension day comes, Vince will remind us that what the ascension tells us, is that all of this is taken up into the Godhead, into the Person of God himself.

This is treasure beyond price. But I want to widen the field still further. In speaking of Scripture having the shape of Jesus, the shape of cross and resurrection, and then of God Himself having that same shape, we are still being sort-of ‘churchy’. I came to faith some 40-odd years ago with the idea of ‘personal salvation’, that it was all about me somehow. And I had a message to tell people about admitting sin, coming to Christ, receiving his forgiveness through the cross and then the promise of eternal life through his resurrection. And all of that is true, and absolutely right for me and for many people at the time. The trouble is it was too small. It’s not only that Scripture is Jesus-shaped, or that God is Jesus-shaped – thinking particularly of cross and resurrection – it’s that everything is Jesus-shaped! We don’t have to look very hard to see the same shape spread across not only humanity, not only the world, but the whole universe. The animal and plant kingdoms have been following a cycle of death and new life for billions of years. Paul himself, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, in Greece, writes about the resurrection. He uses the illustration of a seed which first has to die – that is, to be put into the ground, before it comes to life again (1 Corinthians 15:35-57). The universe itself is full of stars dying and being born again. It’s like this: from the smallest microbe to the biggest galaxy, in the Scriptures, in our own lives there is the shape of death and life: the shape of Jesus, the shape of God himself, the shape of everything. Have we got it yet?

In our human existence we experience death and new life – quite literally, but also within our own lives as we face pain and suffering and then sometimes, new life as well. I deliberately say ‘sometimes’. We will not always see the reality of resurrection, of new life and hope. We can reflect that in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, there really wasn’t much hope, maybe none at all. With one or two exceptions, the story of Jesus’ death reads like it’s the end. We tend to view the cross through the lens of the resurrection, but the reason the resurrection reads like a surprise is because it was a surprise! Who really knew that would happen? For the disciples and everyone around the cross, it looked exactly  like the end – it was a public execution. Did even Jesus know the resurrection was coming? He had some hope – ‘today you will be with me in paradise’, said to one of the two thieves crucified with him (Luke 23:43) but coming back and eating fish on a lakeside (John 21)? Maybe not! ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46) doesn’t sound full of hope, does it? ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30) sounds, well, like an ending.

I say that because sometimes it can feel like there is no hope at all. Yet the Jesus story contains even hopelessness (which, weirdly, can give us hope). We can draw a line between the bleakness and futility of the torture and death of an innocent man on a Roman cross and our own experiences of bleakness and futility. Many years ago I spent 6 weeks on a training course in India, became friends with a German doctor, Dirk, on the same course. We had a lot of fun together, and I stoically endured the merciless teasing about warm, flat British beer with gritted teeth and a plastic smile. We talked often about faith – he wasn’t a believer – and one time he asked me, what do you say about suffering? I began to talk about the cross, the suffering of Jesus. After a few minutes he said, ‘Stop! It’s enough for me to know that you have somewhere to go with it!’

Some of you know that Rosemary and I have recently got back from a visit to Myanmar where our son and daughter-in-law are working for a few months. While we were that side of the world, we took the opportunity to visit Cambodia with Jon and Alexia. On our last day we visited the Genocide museum and Killing fields in Phnom Penh, the capital. Some 2 million people – that’s a quarter of the country’s population – almost all completely innocent, were tortured and killed in around 200 centres around the country in the years 1974-1979 at the hands of the Khmer Rouge under their paranoid leader, Pol Pot. It is the most sobering and depressing place I have ever been to, yet it is part of our global history. Before we went Rosemary and I prayed together and read verses from Isaiah 53: ‘He was despised and rejected, a man of suffering and acquainted with grief’ (v.3). Those words are so poignant, connecting like an electric circuit with the horrors of what happened at Tuol Sleng prison and I wept. In her prayer, Rosemary thanked God for the resurrection of the country, much in evidence now. And there it is again. Crucifixion and resurrection. Look for that pattern, that shape. It is everywhere.

‘Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’ (Luke 24:47) comes near the end of our gospel reading. I have said before that I the word ‘repentance’ quite problematic. It seems to me, at least, to have too narrow a focus: ‘what have you been up to, then? – you had better repent of that!’ I much prefer to break the word down into two halves – ‘re’ meaning ‘again’ and ‘pent’ from the French penser, ‘to think’. Rethink your life! No so much what have you done wrong today (although there may be profit in that!) but what direction is my life taking? How does my life line up with the Jesus story? And rethink the cross and resurrection – not just isolated events in history, but fulfilling the shape of Scripture written hundreds of years in advance; somehow revealing not only the shape of God Himself but the shape of everything. And you are forgiven! Again, I find the word ‘forgiven’ a bit narrow although it’s true, but it’s not enough – not only forgiven, you are loved, accepted, welcomed. If Jesus could forgive the men who nailed him to the cross – and he did – he can surely accept you!

Richard Croft

 

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The Finger That Beckons

Isaiah 61.10 – 62.3, Luke 2.15 – 2

Introduction – Christmas choices
For reasons with which I will not bore you, Nancy and I invited ourselves at very short notice to Christmas lunch with my brother and his family in Wokingham. The welcome was warm, the company delightful and the spread, ample and delicious. There was no turkey but a fabulous side of beef and a lovely salmon wrapped in pastry – and all the trimmings. I opted for the beef – a difficult choice for I am fond of salmon.

Today with our readings we are offered two attractive and substantial dishes. I’m going to be greedy and opt for a bit of both and hope I do not give you indigestion.

A passionate prophet
The Old Testament passage from Isaiah offers us an amazing vision – of a city ransacked and ruined, gloriously restored and of an exhausted, dispirited and exiled people wonderfully returned. And on the lips of the prophet there is a longing and an anticipation for more. ’For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent – for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet till her righteousness shines out like the dawn – her salvation like a blazing torch.’

And I have met and heard of good people, pastors and priests who have for their own place, parish or town made that plea and pledge of the prophet their own. We could make it our own . . .

For Newtown’s sake we will not keep silent – till the battered and bruised find courage and hope, the lonely friendship, the used and abused – men and women, and there are many of them – deliverance and dignity, the dealers are seen no more lurking round the garages on Amity Road or behind the nursery in Palmer Park, and, some might want mischievously to add, plans for the mass rapid transit system beside the Thames – thwarted!

Mary, angels, a manger and the shepherds
If the passage from Isaiah was the salmon in pastry, the gospel from St Luke is the beef. The reading draws to a close with the haunting, poignant comment that Mary ‘treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ (Ch2.19) Avery similar comment is made again just a little later in the gospel after Joseph and Mary to their great relief found the young Jesus debating in the temple courts in Jerusalem.

Sadly, while one part of the Christian church has in the past elevated Mary to heights which would have made her both dizzy and embarrassed, another part has in reaction often ignored her entirely. (I believe a few weeks ago Ali Marshall preached most helpfully about her.) Mary is an extraordinary example of suffering love, great integrity and profound faith, and when I think on her, I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace.’

Angels – I’m rather keen on them. They play a most significant role in both the Old and New Testaments – warning, encouraging, guiding, protecting. Their appearance at times is utterly overwhelming but others quite low key and down to earth. And I have heard from reliable and steady of sources, even Anglican ones, of the appearance of angels in Iran, Pakistan – even Birmingham. My favourite Christmas card this year was of a sketch by Raphael,of an angel both arms raised above his head, one leg tucked under his bottom, the other stretch before him almost as if he was hurdling – magnificent. If the angels of Bethlehem appeared anything like that no wonder the shepherds took note!

And now as we slip from the Nativity to Epiphany, two observations about our traditional understanding of the trappings of the former:
1.  I do not believe from twenty years of living in the Middle East that if Joseph had turned up in Bethlehem and said, ‘I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Mattat, the son of Levi of the line of David and originally from Bethlehem,’ ANY door would have been closed to him. In that region historical memories are long, the extended family very important and hospitality a sacred duty.
2.  The word rendered, ‘inn’, in our Nativity accounts much more commonly means, ‘a place’, ‘space’, even, ‘guest room’. (The traditional word for an inn is used in the story of the Good Samaritan.) At Easter, Nancy and I visited the ancient city of Matera in southern Italy, many of whose houses were built into caves on the hillside. We saw one that had been restored to how it might have been a hundred years ago. It was a cave, one part of which was clearly the living quarters with bed, food store and primitive kitchen, the other end, separated by a very low wall, housed animals. There was a manger carved into the rock. I think that could have been how it was in Bethlehem, where there were plenty of similar caves, some larger, allowing provision for storage or even an extra room. Beautiful though they may look on Christmas cards, it’s doubtful whether any young mum would put her child under the stars where even today the snow can lie, ‘deep and crisp and even’. I realise that these thoughts may cause havoc for the writers of Nativity plays, and now what of the shepherds ?

Their terror gave way to wonder, excitement and exuberant, bubbling praise. Can one not imagine them saying to one another on return to their flock, ‘Who would have thought that to us, you Abraham with your bandy legs and squint, and to me with a stutter and love of drink, an angel spoke and we looked at the face of God?’ The wonder of that is most beautifully put in a poem from Uganda.

Blessed are you O Christ child
that your cradle was so low that shepherds,
poorest and simplest of earthly people
could yet kneel beside you and
look level-eyed into the face of God.

Sometimes I fear the accumulated trappings of the Christmas story can obscure the central figure. Doing RE-inspired in Southcote just before Christmas, I got so caught up with my story of an unkind innkeeper that I never had time to get Jesus born!

A Christian for some fifty years and a priest for over forty, I still hunger to study, know and follow Jesus better. I share the credo of Theodore Doestoevsky, which I stumbled upon recently. Here it is: ‘To believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable . . . and more perfect than Christ, and I tell myself with jealous love, not only that there is nothing but there cannot be anything.’

I end with words of a Christian hymn from India:

Behold how the angels sing;
Glory to God in the highest,
Peace on earth.
Love has taken a name and a form, and,
becoming meek for his helpless creatures
has come to earth.
The finger on which the sun is set as a diamond,
he puts to his mouth and plays with in the small cowshed.
O Christ, give to us this mind,
that as the finger turns and beckons
we too may respond.

He beckons us into a new year. Let us follow with courage and devotion.

Amen.