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Ascension Day 2021  

Luke 24.44-end, Acts 1.1-11

Looking up Ascension Day sermons on my computer I discovered that I’ve preached a number here, and so I’ve probably said most of what can be said about the background to the Ascension – the significance of mountains and links with OT epiphanies like those to Moses and Elijah on Sinai and Horeb,  the need to explain why the resurrection appearances of Christ ceased after a certain period of time (40 days, says Luke in Acts), providing us with a hinge event between Easter and Pentecost, preparing us for the coming of the Holy Spirit….  As Richard Croft said on Sunday, I’m preaching to the converted – you already know all that background stuff.

But last year I broke with tradition. We celebrated the Ascension on the Sunday close to the day and I borrowed Tango, a disreputable looking orange bird puppet from Chris Smith to illustrate what I wanted to say.  Lockdown was starting to get to me, I guess! I wanted to talk about learning to fly.  Tango was a fledgling and he was nervous about the whole flying business.  It seemed and still seems to me that the Ascension was what launched Jesus followers into the possibility of flying, that is to say, leaving the familiar, launching into the unknown and becoming witnesses to the resurrection as we see recorded in Acts.  It’s obviously bound up with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but it starts before then because at the end of the Ascension, at the end of Luke’s gospel he notes that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy; already the Holy Spirit was at work.

What enables birds to fly? It’s in their genes (and I’m not talking about trousers!) What is it about the Ascension that prepared the disciples for the launching out we see after Pentecost?  One way of putting it is to say that through Christ’s death and resurrection a new gene entered human DNA.  One of the early church Fathers, Irenaeus put it this way, ‘God became human so that we might become divine’.  Another image which I rather like, especially with all the talk about passports, visas, entry requirements coming up around Brexit, is that as Christians we have dual citizenship.  We are British citizens and we are citizens of heaven.  The Ascension is when that reality first started to dawn on us.  When Christ was raised from the dead it did something to our humanity; that was raised too, so much so that at the Ascension we too are caught up with Christ, right into the heart of the Trinity.  That’s where we now dwell.  That’s what heaven is about.  We are citizens of earth, but also citizens of heaven.  Jesus said to his disciples when he was preparing them for his death, ‘I am going to prepare a place for you, so that you may be where I am’. And he did and we are.

We have roots in a place other than our current context.  We have an identity other than what is in our UK passport.  We are people who are fully earthed, whilst also able to extend our range beyond what we can experience through our senses.  Our flying, as it were, might include extending the range of people whom we love, or enlarging our prayer life, or spending more time at home, or simplifying our possessions or learning a new skill or being more generous……really, whatever signals some resurrection life emerging.

Like those disciples gathered round Jesus on the mountain, let’s look up and look out for what is in store for us as we hold dual citizenship and practise flying.

 

Christine Bainbridge May 2021

mary

Advent 4B St John & St Stephen’s Reading. 20.12.20

Romans 16: 25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.

 

Luke 1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

 

 

Looking through my sermons from 10 years of ministry I was surprised to discover that I’d never preached before on the Virgin Mary! So this reflection on the mother of Jesus has felt like slightly new ground for me, from a preaching point of view, and has been very fruitful. I’ve also been assisted by Cathy, Ian and Richard Bainbridge, who agreed to share their responses to Mary and to her yes to God, for which I am most grateful. More from them very soon.

 

So we’ve come in our Advent journey to the fourth Sunday and Mary. There are different ways to mark our progress through Advent, Sunday by Sunday, I’m sure you’ve noticed this in church down the years.

 

One way through the colours of the candles (purple, purple, pink, purple) which we have seen as signifying – waiting, waiting, rejoicing, and waiting. And then the Christ light.

 

Another way we mark Advent is through the readings set for each Sunday. Roughly speaking, the Advent story begins with the patriarchs (first Sunday) continues with the prophets (second Sunday) follows onto John the Baptist (third Sunday) and comes today to Mary the mother of Jesus (fourth Sunday).

 

As with all things, you can tell a lot by a name.

 

So how do you refer to Mary the mother of Jesus? How do you feel about her example? What part, if any, does she play in your spirituality?

 

Some of us might have our favourite heroes or heroines from the bible, or from Church history. Devotion to Mary perhaps goes hand in hand with a closer relationship with the saints. I like the way monks and nuns take the name of a saint to be their example and inspiration. And of course, whole Orders do this – the Franciscans follow the particular example of St Francis, for instance; the Benedictines that of St Benedict; the Dominicans that of St Dominic (whom I confess I know little about).

 

As a denomination that has both Catholic and Protestant elements, the Church of England encompasses a broad range of practice concerning Mary. This undoubtedly includes how we refer to her. There is a preponderance of St Mary’s churches in the south – something about all the churches along the Thames route being dedicated to the mother of Christ – so there’s a lot of Saint Marys…

 

It was a surprise to me to discover a day in mid-August in the Lectionary, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was casually referred to at the college where I studied theology as the BVM.

 

She is also known as mother of God, Our Lady, Mother of the Church, the New Eve, Queen of Heaven, mediatrix, and even co-redemptrix with Christ the Redeemer.

 

Some of which might meet with a little resistance, I am guessing, in our largely, though not solely, Protestant congregation. I suppose I must have heard sermons about the Blessed Virgin down the years; the only one I remember was Richard’s last year. However, as a partly Convent educated child, I developed fewer theological hang ups about Mary than some. As an 11-year-old I learnt to say The Hail Mary at the end of each school day and still remember it.

 

It starts: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus’. And if it sounds strange, it’s no more than the very words of the angel who appeared to the young girl and surprised her in an event we refer to as the Annunciation, and which we reflect on today.

 

The prayer ends with these words: ‘Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen’, And I didn’t need to look that up. I’m sure other things I learnt when I was 11 went in one ear and out the other, but obviously not the Hail Mary. But should Christians be praying to Mary? Or even asking for her prayers (which is not quite the same)?

 

I like the novelist Catherine Fox on this, writing in the Church Times Diary in 2018, around the time her husband became the Bishop of Sheffield. A one-time Baptist, now Anglican, and decidedly Protestant, she writes about an experience of coming into a church and hearing two pieces of music, the second of which was named: ‘Hymn to the Virgin’.

 

“I was disconcerted to hear the organ playing The Lincolnshire Poacher as I arrived last Sunday morning. This soon resolved itself into a hymn to the Virgin. An earlier me would have had to fan herself with The Baptist Hymnal. Fortunately, I have a sister who has gone over to Rome, so I consulted her. She laid about my squeamishness briskly. “For goodness’ sake, it’s only what the angel said to Mary. You’d have no problem asking me to pray for you. You believe in the communion of the saints. Get over yourself.”

https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/1-june/regulars/diary/diary-catherine-fox

 

At which point I’m going to turn to Richard for his reflections on honouring Mary.

 

The Blessed Virgin Mary.  Growing up in a context of staunchly protestant evangelicalism almost the first thing to be said about Mary was the worry about those who apparently ‘worshipped’ her.  That was bad because if we worshipped Mary we would have that much less worship left for Jesus. Mmmm.  There was a big flaw here.  Worshipping her may be mistaken, but in the worry about not falling into that trap the idea of honouring Mary somehow got lost. So my understanding of Mary has had to shift.  And, to be fair, mainstream thinking in the Church of England has moved a long way as well.

Another hurdle to face concerns gender roles.  Mary as a model of submission and obedience  and motherhood is not a very comfortable image in a time when women are demanding equality with men.  Does the traditional image of Mary serve to reinforce a tendency to patriarchy?

The Orthodox churches honour Mary with the title ‘theotokos’ or God-bearer.  Mary is the one who at the crucial moment  said YES to God through God’s messenger, the angel Gabriel. Despite the terrifying appearance of the angel bursting in on her domestic life, Mary kept her nerve.  Would she be willing to play her part in God’s plan? Her response was simple and clear.  ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ At the heart of our faith is the Incarnation – God choosing to share our humanity. Jesus shows us what God is like and as Christians we are his followers.  God did not simply zap humanity with his power.  He chose a young woman in an obscure Palestinian town.  Mary was called to play a vital part, a textbook example of the way God uses human beings to achieve his plans.

Mary was a remarkable human being.  She is sometimes considered the first disciple of Christ.  She  was the one who cared for him in his infancy.  She was there at the wedding of Cana of Galilee where Jesus turned the water into wine.  At the end of his earthly life she was a witness at the horrific scene of the crucifixion. How terrible that must have been for her. The words of the aged Simeon when Jesus was presented in the Temple as a baby must have been ringing in Mary’s ears: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

Mary features in so much of Christian art.  In Western art often with a delicacy and tenderness.  She is also often seen in Russian Icons, more stylised and remote.  Icons are seen as windows onto heaven and in Orthodox Churches the faithful often kiss the icon.  It is a form of giving honour, of tuning into the divine.

This icon, the Virgin of Vladimir is one of Russia’s oldest and most precious treasures. It is even credited with saving Moscow from Tartar invasions no less than three times.   Look at the way Mary  is depicted.  She tenderly holds baby Jesus with her right arm while her left arm points to him as the saviour. It’s a beautiful and deeply spiritual image.

So I have no difficulty in honouring Mary, for her part in the story of the incarnation, for her obedience and for her courageous and faithful discipleship. I honour her for her closeness to Jesus, for the tenderness and love which so much of the art conveys.  The words known as the ‘Hail Mary’ ends with the words, pray for us simmers now and at the hour of our death.’ I am very comfortable with the idea of Mary praying for me.  All this is part of honouring – not worshipping the mother of Jesus.

By Richard Bainbridge

 

 

In Morning Prayer each Monday and Wednesday, we have prayed the words of the Benedictus – ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free’. It’s the hymn that Zechariah sings after the birth of his miracle son, John, who will become the Baptiser.

 

If you remember he too has an Annunciation, and he asked a question of his angel, representing God, but it didn’t go down well. After the angel’s announcement of a son to be born to him and his wife in old age, he asks “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years”. Which sound like a reasonable query. But it’s read as a failure to trust. The angel says: ‘but now, because you didn’t believe my words, you will become mute unable to speak…’. It’s not till the moment of his son’s naming that he receives back his own voice and breaks out in praise.

 

By contrast, Mary’s response, which is also a question, seems to be of a different order. She asks, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ It’s also a reasonable question, but in her case, it elicits further information rather than judgment. After which she says simply, ‘let it be to me according to your word’. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’s ‘your will, not mine, be done’. It might sum up the whole of our Christian lives.

 

So Mary symbolises our yes to God. In fact she’s an archetype of receptiveness to the divine. I agree with Richard: in our Protestant desire to avoid misplaced worship, we have neglected the unique place Mary has in our faith – her willingness brought about our salvation through Christ – that is a theological truth I am very happy to sign up to. How are you saying yes to God at this time?

 

Saying yes can prove very costly, as Mary found out at the foot of the cross. Years before that sorrow, she faced misunderstanding, gossip, hardship, uncertainty, puzzlement and frustration as she fulfilled the role of first mother, then bereaved mother, then devoted disciple of the Saviour of the world.

 

Maybe there are people whose own yes to God greatly impacted the world and have inspired you personally. Ian is going to share some reflections along these lines….then we’re going to end with a song.

 

 

Saying Yes to God

‘The ending’s the same, the world will not change,

The answer is clear, obliteration’.

(By the band Slipknot, Wherein Lies Continue, All Hope is Gone).

I use this quote as a contrast to most of what I am about to say. Much as I love Slipknot (a nine strong band mostly from IOWA), they don’t share an overly positive outlook on life as I am sure you have picked up.

My initial thought about saying yes to God was to remember the missionary Hudson Taylor who went to China, who I heard about when I was 10 or 11, who said yes to God in his 20s to go to China in the 19th Century.

As it is now, it was not an easy thing to say yes to as China was not receptive to having Christianity preached and promoted in China.

I also thought about Doreen & Neville Lawrence whose faith kept them pursuing their fight to bring those responsible for the death of their son Stephen in 1993 to justice. They continued to say Yes to God, despite living their life in the glare of public opinion and all the issues that came with that.

I continue to be impressed and humbled by all three of them who persevered and persevere despite the battles that came and come their way. It encourages me to try to say yes more often than I say no, which let’s face it is the easy way out, and also realise that it is not just about big ticket issues, it is also important to not lose sight of seemingly small things which are equally vital.

By Ian Maynard.

 

Today if you’re hearing God’s call, maybe you need to ask for the courage to say yes, especially if you know that it will prove a hard path.

 

We’re going to end by watching Cathy sing her composition Mary’s Song, the haunting last line of which says: “you didn’t know that it would be this way when you said ‘yes’”. We don’t know what saying our yes to God will ultimately mean, but we do know that when ordinary people say yes to God, what is birthed is joy, justice and peace; three things which our world is badly in need of it right now.

 

May we be given grace to say yes to God today and in the coming year. Amen.

 

Cathy sings (video).

 

 

 

 

 

healing hands

Sermon for St Luke the Evangelist, Trinity 19 – Sunday 18th October 2020

 

2 Timothy 4:5-17

5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Personal Instructions

9 Do your best to come to me soon, 10for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. 11Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. 12I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. 13When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. 14Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. 15You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.

16 At my first defence no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

Luke 10:1-9

The Mission of the Seventy

10After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

FIRST SLIDE: ST LUKE THE EVANGELIST: HEALING IN A PANDEMIC

Today the church remembers St Luke, one of the four evangelists who wrote his account of the life of Jesus. Luke’s gospel emphasizes the universal nature of God’s invitation. His gospel is packed with stories about money, wealth and the importance of generosity. There’s a lot about joy, meals, women and prayer. Jesus is portrayed as a healer and saviour and since the same word in Greek covers both healer and saviour (sozo) we already get a strong hint that when we consider healing as a topic we are looking at something holistic.

A bit like the topic Mission, Healing is far too large a theme to be tackled in one sermon, but I’m hoping to offer some starting points that might be pertinent as we live through this pandemic. Healing, sickness, wholeness, heath and health services are very much on all our minds at the moment. What can the church say about healing? What do we believe about healing? This is also a question about what sort of God do we worship. Is he good? Does he want our good? Does he want our good now? Or to put it another way: when we come in desperation with an illness or condition, often the pressing questions, going on at some deep level are:

Can God heal?

Will God heal?

Will God heal me?

We will all have different experiences of healing, and most of us won’t even agree on how to define the word. I asked two people, whose judgment I trust and who have had a lot of experience of the Christian church, to give me their initial reaction to the word healing. One was in her 40s, one in her 20s. I asked them, if you were going to church and you knew that the theme was healing, what one thing would you want to hear and what would you not want to hear?

That might be a good question to ponder for a moment yourself….

I’m not going to share what they said, but it was clear that they hadn’t always had positive experiences of being prayed for when there was something wrong with them. One had watched a member of the bible study group slowly die of cancer and the other is living with an autoimmune condition that she directly links with church related trauma. Healing is such a difficult topic.

So this is NOT a theologically thorough overview, but a series of reflections on some photographs that have come to mean a lot to me during the pandemic. I hope this methodology might be a better fit to a topic that cannot help but be, not just theological, but personal. So the photos you’ll see are among the 100 finalists of the Hold Still portrait competition. Hosted by the National Gallery and publicised by the Duchess of Cambridge, the photos are a chronicle by ordinary people, all across the UK, of life under lockdown. They show moving shots of healthcare workers, separated relations, children studying at home and parents under strain. I thought they might provide a contemporary backdrop for our reflections on St Luke and the ministry of healing

“THE BELOVED PHYSICIAN”

Luke was known as the beloved physician. What a lovely phrase – we have some beloved physicians amongst us of course at St John and St Stephen’s! Luke probably never met Jesus but in the beginning of his gospel he explains to someone called Theophilus, that ‘since many have undertaken to write an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed onto us by those who were… eyewitnesses… I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you…’ I think we all want our doctors and consultants to be orderly people able to give an orderly account of our diagnoses and prognoses. We might sense the nascent scientist in Luke, if that’s not too much of an anachronism. One thing I find encouraging about Luke is that he practised the art of healing as a physician but wrote about the miraculous healings that Jesus did. It’s a healthy combination and one we can maintain when we pray for those who are ill – we pray just as much that the healing work of Doctors will be inspired – as well as the inner work of peace & wholeness that we seek from God.

After a long week looking after patients, an Orthopaedic Consultant and his Surgical Trainee wanted to lift the mood of not only themselves, but their colleagues and patients on the ward. It’s easy to forget how much we need our mouths to communicate and convey emotion, until there is a mask in front to prevent it. I took this picture to show that our NHS and our nation can still find light in the darkest of times. Keep smiling and be haPPE!

“ONLY LUKE IS WITH ME”

Luke’s story of the Christ spills out into the book of Acts as he chronicles the spread of the gospel across the known world. Paul spearheaded this movement, of course, and it would seem he had a close relationship with the beloved physician. In the Epistle to Timothy we see the elderly Paul in prison and in the last phase of his life. Everyone has either deserted him or left for another city. ‘Only Luke is with me’ is a rather poignant sentence that stuck out for me. It shows us Paul’s very human side. We know that Paul dealt in the miraculous; whether exorcisms, visions or deliverance from deadly snake bites or near death experiences, amazing things happened around him. But here he is, like many today, perhaps simply a bit lonely.

This is a studio portrait of Tendai, a recovery and anaesthetics nurse, who was born in Zimbabwe, and now lives in my local town – Reading, Berkshire. I wanted to portray her caring side as well as a look of concern and uncertainty that many of us have experienced during this pandemic. It’s why I chose a lower than normal angle and asked her to look off camera, placing her half way down in the frame.

 

We are mindful that it has been costly for our health workers to offer themselves for the healing of others; often they have done so while being burdened and stressed themselves.

 

 

“THE LONG NIGHT”

‘Only Luke is with me’. This plaintive sentence made me think about the long nights that Covid sufferers have endured, when the presence of one other person is so vital. The pm spoke of this – it’s the night-time when you most need someone watching over you, and for much more than just medical reasons. Those ‘someones’ were nurses and doctors who often put in 12 hour shifts to care and go beyond for the sick and dying, and who are still doing so as our hospitals fill up once more. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in hospital, dreading the onset of a long night – a dark night of the soul, if you will – if you have, it will have been a doctor, a nurses or perhaps a midwife who sat with you and brought you the comfort you needed. I once waited for nightfall on a bed in the Royal Berks, when I knew that I would go into labour and deliver a stillborn baby. Every four hours another lovely midwife would appear and offer me their presence in that dark room, a presence I so badly needed in that time of fear and desperation. I remember all their names.

During the pandemic, my staff were split into small teams, we worked 12-hour alternate day and night shifts. Early on, I wanted to record my team in action, something to give them at the end to remember our experiences by. I did this and it was popular. On this day, I was leading the day team. I walked in to take handover from the night team that Allen was leading; as I sat opposite him… I thought: ‘There’s a picture’:  a determined healthcare worker at the end of a trying shift. …. I never saw panic at work by anyone – no matter how bad things were, I only saw a calm professionalism. I think this picture captures this. It reminds me of good colleagues and I cannot put into words the feelings towards my team, I don’t need words, this image says it all.

 

“HEALING OR CURE?”

 

Something that has exercised Christians down the years, myself included, and maybe you as well, is the difference between healing and cure. Our reading from Luke specifically says that Jesus sent out the seventy to cure the sick as a sign that the kingdom of God had come near, and this seems to accord with the ministry of Jesus as well. The charismatic movement, birthed in this country in the 60s and 70s, brought miraculous physical healing back on the agenda, and perhaps you have had experience of this kind of instant healing (or cure).

 

Somehow for me, extrapolating directly from Jesus’ day to our own and expecting the miraculous to be our normal fails to take on board the intervening 2000 years when the monasteries and later the hospitals sustained a ministry of healing that still continues today, even if somewhat cut adrift from its Christian roots. I might like to pray for your broken arm, but I would also urge you to go to A&E and get it looked at by a specialist. But God is a holistic God, as this portrait shows.

 

As a photographer, I had the privilege of being given the opportunity to follow a care worker visiting a client during the pandemic. They do an amazing and underrated job and I wanted to highlight this. I felt this image captured the caring and compassionate side… Fabiana, who cares for Jack, was with him in his room. She says: ‘I care for him and he makes me happy in these terrible times. The first thing he says to me, when I open the door, is ‘ I am so glad to see you’ and with that he makes all the hard work we have been doing worthwhile. With the lockdown, there can be no family visits, so we are the only people he sees all day. It is my job to make him feel better even if only for a few minutes, to make sure he is clean, fed and he has taken his medication. I make sure to make a few little jokes to make him laugh a bit. I love what I do, I love my job, I love caring for the elderly.’

 

 

“HEALING AND SUFFERING”

I wonder if you noticed how our first reading mentions suffering in the first line? Interesting for a Sunday when we think about healing. ‘As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully’, writes Paul. He goes onto say he is being poured out like a libation – a drink offering to the gods – except in Paul’s case he’s offering his life to the One God and that life is nearly at an end. I love the mixture of exalted statements of faith “I have fought the good fight” and his very human plea (one which we can all echo in these days of isolation) “Do your best to come to me soon”. Why do we suffer? What might be emerging from our experience of suffering on a global scale? Is it the case, as some argue, that Jesus’ ministry was primarily about being saved, rather than healed? Or is it impossible to disassociate one from the other?

And what about sin? Sometimes, I wish the Lord’s Prayer could be re-written for these times of mental health epidemic, from ‘forgive us our trespasses’, to ‘heal us from our wounds’. If you’ve ever come up close and personal with your own failings, as well as feeling they’re wrong, you might consider how before the wrongs you committed, wrongs were committed against you. The bullies were bullied, the abusers abused. Like in King Lear, sometimes we’re ‘more sinned against than sinning’.

Henri Nouwen wrote about the concept of the wounded healer. This idea saves us, as Christians, from being inwardly focused. We are always made whole in order to offer wholeness to others. We don’t thrive despite our wounds but out of the core of them. That’s why healing is a complex and paradoxical subject, because inner healing and wholeness grow out of facing our most painful experiences and letting God transform them. The world is crying out for people who have brought their own suffering to God in order to stand with others in suffering.

A raw picture of the hopelessness and desperation I feel during this lockdown, as a shielded person with leukaemia. COVID-19 has taken far more from me than leukaemia has. Stuck on statutory sick pay, facing losing everything I worked hard for gets too much sometimes. I was training to be a pharmacy dispenser before the lockdown began and had taken less than a week’s sick leave from work during and after my diagnosis. Then COVID-19 struck and having to shield cost me everything I had worked hard for. I know this is not a positive photograph, but it is reality for many people in my situation. It is my new normal and I felt compelled to photograph myself in that moment, perhaps so that someone would see me.

 

“WHERE IS GOD IN A PANDEMIC?”

So this has been a brief skate through a dense subject. Healing: Can we pray for it? Can we ask to be delivered from Corona Virus on a personal or even global scale? Where is God in it all?

Here are three simple suggestions to that question.

Where is God in the pandemic?

Firstly, God is in the love. As John the Evangelist wrote: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God”.

A little girl says ‘be safe daddy and hugs him as he goes out to start another shift as a medical worker. he gives her an all encompassing hug.

“WHERE IS GOD?”

Secondly to the question: Where is God?

God is in the suffering.

“WHERE IS GOD?”

And thirdly “Where is God?”

God is in the hope, in the rainbow after the storm. If we lose hope, we lose everything. May the God of all hope fill us with joy and peace in believing, and may God strengthen us wherever we offer ourselves and our healing wounds to a hurting world. Amen.

 

mind the gap

Homily from Sunday 12th July

Homily offered at the first service in the church building after lockdown on Sunday 12 July 2020 at 4.00pm.  Only those members unable to join in morning zoomed worship had been invited.  We followed Common Worship Evening Prayer

Luke 19.41-20.8

‘As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it’  In the weeks and months leading up to his entry into Jerusalem the gap between him and the Jewish authorities has continued to widen.  There’s a gap too, in the understanding of the ordinary people about what the Messiah will be like, what he will do.  There is also a gap in their misreading of the signs of the times.  A gap.  Jesus notes all this, and he continues his journey into Jerusalem.

I was in London for the first time during the week, and using the tube where I saw again the slogan ‘Mind the gap’.  I was reminded of those words as I prepared for this afternoon.

Our present context is a kind of gap – a gap between full lockdown and whatever lies ahead as we emerge.  We are living in a gap.  Gaps can be draughty and cold.  I’d like to consider what living in this gap might mean for us as a church, and to do that I’m going to tell a story.  It might be a familiar one.  If so, I hope you might enjoy hearing it again.

In concerns Jesus’ birth.  As you know Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable – a cold and draughty place if ever there was one.  We read in the bible that shepherds came to see the new baby.  What we don’t read is that some of the animals also came, and as with any new baby they wanted to bring a gift.  The cow set off saying that she would take some of her milk – just right, she said.  The sheep said he would take some wool – good for keeping the child warm.  The hen said she would take eggs – good nourishment for the tired mother and Joseph, and the mouse…well, the mouse didn’t know what she could take, but she so wanted to see the baby, so she followed behind the others, hoping inspiration would come.  They reached the stable, with each animal entering to offer their gift, and the tiny mouse struggling to see what was happening.  She went round the outside to see if there was any way she might get a better view, and then she noticed a small hole a little way up the outside wall.  Scrambling up she squeezed into the hole and found herself almost on a level with the baby in the manger.  Quivering with delight she steadied herself and kept as still as possible while she gazed at the child.  Mary and Joseph were thanking the animals for their gifts.  Then Mary turned round, as though noticing something, she looked up, straight at the mouse, and smiled.  Thank you, she said.  There was a cold draught coming through that hole, but you have stopped it.  You’re a real gift’.

Now, I want to suggest that in this strange sort of gap time in which we are living, we, our church can be rather like that mouse.  We can remain steady in the gap.  We don’t have to do anything spectacular, but we do need to do what we are called to do as followers of Christ – stand firm, be who we are, continue in prayer, in looking out for our neighbours, being fully present to them and to each other, being kind in whatever way we can.  That way we can block some of those cold draughts that keep sweeping over people.

Like Jesus, we might weep over our city, over the gap.  And, like Jesus, we keep steady.  We stand firm.  We aren’t deflected from our path.  Like Jesus, like the mouse, we keep our eyes on the goal and we keep offering ourselves, right now, just as we are.

Christine Bainbridge

road

Emmaus – Sermon April 26th – Easter 3

Sermon Luke 24.13-35

One night last week we had to call out an emergency plumber because we had a leak in our kitchen.  He arrived, a big man with no hair and a mask over his face and set to work, mumbling to us occasionally through the mask while his head was under our kitchen sink.  We all kept our distance!  Then, when the job was done, and as he was leaving, he took off the mask to say goodbye.  He had a kind, smiling face.  It was a moment of revelation, not because we knew him, but because we recognized him as a fellow human being, and a friendly one at that.  Up till that point he had been a stranger.  It was a bit of an Emmaus moment.

Lately I’ve found myself experiencing a sort of cabin fever.  How long is this going on, I wonder.  Get me out of here!  I know this isn’t the case for everyone – there’s a whole range of ways we react, many of them changing daily!  One thing I’ve come to realize, though, is that on the whole I’ve viewed my home as a kind of launch pad to life outside.  It’s there for me as a refuge, a resource, a place to relax, to pray, and, yes, work, but work that is to do with activity outside the home.  So, I’ve struggled on and off with the feeling of being stuck on the launch pad with no immediate prospect launching into the outside world where real life is happening.

So, I needed help.  I have partly found it in re reading some of the Winnie the Pooh stories.  I wasn’t brought up on these.  In fact it wasn’t until after our marriage that two Christopher Robin books surfaced among the worldly goods that Richard was endowing me with!  Now, in our enforced isolation they have become bedtime reading.  They offer an escape, a distraction.  So I read again about kanga giving Roo ‘Strengthening Medicine’, which of course he didn’t like (though it turned out to be Tigger’s favourite food).  That led me to wondering what strengthening medicine might look like for me, for us, during this strange time.

I was asking that question as I turned to our gospel passage for today – the road to Emmaus.  Here are two people who obviously knew each other well, and who had been in Jerusalem during the events of Good Friday. Perhaps they were friends, siblings, or a married couple, or business partners.  Luke doesn’t tell us.  We can assume that they were followers of Jesus because later in the story we see that they knew the others well enough to want to tell them about what had happened.  But, anyway, they were mulling over the events of the past few days and it was making them miserable.  Mmm, I could connect with that as I connect with friends and family about our current situation.  Then a stranger draws near and joins in the conversation and gradually their whole narrative starts to change.  There’s pain and sadness, but through the eyes of the stranger they begin to see that behind all this lies something infinitely brighter and more hopeful.  Nevertheless they didn’t realize it was Jesus who was talking with them until he accepted their invitation to eat with them in their home.  Then the penny dropped and they couldn’t wait to rush back to Jerusalem to share this life-giving twist to their old, sad narrative with the other disciples.  They really had received strengthening medicine!  It’s a very long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus and there they were, doing it all over again!  Strengthening indeed!

Luke powerfully conveys the difference between meeting Jesus before the resurrection and after.  For those hearing his gospel years after the events themselves he conveys where and how we are most likely to meet with the risen Christ.  Most of us, I guess, will be familiar with these, so I’ll just run through them briefly:

through conversations with other believers, in church, home groups, over coffee etc

through sharing meals, and particularly the bread and wine together

through reading scripture together, with the Holy Spirit revealing Christ’s presence there

through hospitality – they invited Jesus into their home

through being together on what followers of Jesus would soon call ‘The Way’

Yes, I thought, this is all strengthening medicine, and we’re doing most, if not all of this, virtually, one way or another, and it’s good, though requiring new behaviour and skills which makes it harder sometimes; still, we’re discovering new ways of being church together aren’t we?.  But there’s a closeness, an intimacy Luke conveys about those disciples encountering Jesus which is lacking when we do everything virtually.  It made me think of a child in hospital, missing their favourite cuddly toy and a parent bringing not the cuddly itself, but a photograph of it, and saying, ‘Here, darling, hold this, it will remind you of teddy, or panda, or Ellie’.  It’s just not the same.

Luke, I said to myself, I need something more strengthening.  Then something rather obvious dawned on me.  Those two disciples had invited Jesus into their home.  Luke, writing his gospel 80 or more years after the events he describes, had probably never met Jesus in the flesh.  Yet, he’s saying that it’s possible to encounter him in our home right here and now.  It was a light bulb moment!  After all I’m spending nearly the whole time inside my home and here was Luke saying that was exactly where I might be meeting Christ.  And that’s because of the resurrection.  It’s the risen Christ I can meet.

One of my favourite verses in John’s gospel is in John 14 where Jesus is preparing his disciples for what lies ahead as they move towards Jerusalem where he knows he will die.  He is offering some comfort, knowing that, as John puts it, ‘their hearts will be troubled’.  He tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them so that ‘you also may be where I am’.  I once spent some time sitting with those words and imagining Jesus saying those words to me.  Where are you?  I asked.  There are some wonderfully rich theological responses to that question, but on that particular day what came to me was a picture of Jesus standing in the doorway of our home and beckoning me inside. It was a startling reversal of my launch pad.  Going inside my own home was where I would be meeting the risen Christ.  Suppose that when Jesus says to me that he wants me to be where he is, he means in my home?

Now that is strengthening medicine, I thought.

Christ is risen .  He is risen indeed.  Alleluiah.  Amen.

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The sound of the turtle dove is heard again in our land

Christmas Morning talk, St John and St Stephen’s, 2019.

Luke 2:1-14

Play turtle dove track – who can identify this?

 

You might wonder why we’re listening to a call of a turtle dove – if there’s any vague link with Christmas?!

 

On the first day of Christmas,

my true love sent to me: a partridge in a pear tree,

On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

 

The song goes on to name three French hens, four colly/calling(?) birds, plus, later on, geese a laying, & swans-a-swimming…

 

So there are quite a few birds in this Christmas song, at least.

 

There aren’t many birds in the original Christmas story, although we do think of the Holy Spirit as a dove. I don’t know how that sound of the turtledove calling made you feel, but there’s something about the sound that is in some way consoling; it woos us perhaps?

 

The actual singing of a turtledove is a highly symbolic sound in a 21st Century landscape that has seen them all but wiped out in Europe.

 

In a wonderful book that came onto my radar recently, conservationist Isabella Tree writes about how she and her farmer husband had the vision to let their 3,500-acre farm in Sussex return to the wild (Wilding, 2019).

 

As they let the land go back to nature, amidst much controversy from various environmental groups, many endangered species began to return, including the rare Purple Emperor butterfly and pairs of singing turtledoves.

 

I can highly recommend the book; it has a great quotation on the opening page that someone here might recognize: ‘Flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land’ (Song of Solomon).

 

I listened to her account of the wilding project on radio 4 a few weeks back and felt an amazing stirring of hope, something often in short supply as we increasingly hear of climate change acceleration.

 

There’s so much darkness around how we think about our earth at the moment, and so little hope; the return of the turtledove to Sussex seemed like a moment of comfort in the darkness.

 

The wilding vision seemed like a stirring of hope for our earth.

 

The angels sing a song of hope to the shepherds and a song of great joy. But we’re gaining awareness this year perhaps more than any other, of how any story of good news to all mankind must also be good news for the earth.

 

God still speaks to us through the creation and we have an instinctive feeling of unease, even dread, when the creation is groaning.

 

Former poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has been collecting Christmas poems into volumes for a number of years. An overwhelming majority of the ones she chose to mark the season feature nature as a vehicle for something other to be made manifest, whether the poems are about snow, ice, holly, tree or birdsong.

 

One has ‘the murderous robin’ prophesying ‘more snow, and worse than snow’ (The Christmas Robin, Robert Graves).

 

Another speaks of the rather sad moment of the taking down of the tree: ‘By suppertime all that remains is the scent/ of balsam fir. If it’s darkness/ we’re having, let it be extravagant’ (Taking Down The Tree, Jane Kenyon).

 

Another writes of the holly being cut and bound to a wreath: ‘You twist and bend her tender branches/ back until they meet’ (Holly, Susan Wicks). One cannot help thinking of crucifixion…

 

Although they’re written for Christmas, few mention the Christ child, but the message of how nature speaks, is everywhere obvious. For the Christian, we might say the message of how God speaks through nature…

 

The Spirit hasn’t stopped speaking to the world and she/he often speaks through the natural world.

 

Helpfully there exists a theological concept of nature being ‘the first bible’ – God’s primary revelation of himself to us.

 

So many poets and artists unconsciously or consciously reveal their spiritual longings through their depictions of nature, and when they turn their attention to Christmas themes this is no less the case.

 

Christina Rossetti’s Christmas involved a ‘bleak midwinter’ in which ‘frosty winds made moan’. Her own rather frosty experience of love led her to a somewhat sombre outlook perhaps, but she finds consolation in the offering of herself to the Christ child.

The Christian is always called to hope.

 

But it’s not easy in midwinter – we naturally want to hibernate – to light a fire, put the kettle on, bung something warming in the oven, curl up with a movie – we all have a deep need for comfort in the cold and dark.

 

Our Christian forbears subsumed the pagan festivals of midwinter, not to eradicate them but to inject them with Christian hope.

 

People were already trying to deal with the darkness, and in midwinter, all they wanted to do was to eat, drink and be merry. Much of our Christmas celebration mirrors this still.

 

But a party only goes so far (normally as far as the morning after the night before); human beings need something more; we need hope.

 

We need the call of the turtledove.

 

It’s not at all unnatural for us to look for hope in winter – to get that tree inside the house and put up lights in the dark window.

 

You may have heard of the Danish concept of hygge, defined by the dictionary as “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being”.

 

Along with wilding, it’s my other word of the year. Indeed there are whole Instagram accounts devoted to the concept of hygge. It derives from a 16th C Norwegian term meaning to comfort or console.

 

So, the shepherds see a bright light illuminating the dark hillside – they are welcomed to what our Christmas cards imagine as a warm and cosy stable where a baby is sleeping. They have a hygge moment, if that’s not too trivial a thought for Christmas. They certainly have a moment of consolation.

 

The concept of being without a home at Christmas is one of the worst we can imagine – when Crisis at Christmas opens one of its centres, it’s not just that someone gets to come off the street for a night, it’s about warmth, welcome and finding consolation.

 

I pray that this midwinter, we hear the call of the turtle dove – metaphorically if not literally. I pray that we sense the hope and consolation that God the Spirit is continually pouring into the world even today, through the Saviour who is born – Christ the Lord.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christ the King (Luke 23 v 33-43)

Today we celebrate Christ the King. This is the final Sunday of the liturgical year; the culmination before we begin again with Advent.

Pope Pius the tenth instituted in the Catholic church the feast of Christ the King with these words

“If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”

When you first think about Christ as King it seems wrong to have as our Gospel reading Luke’s crucifixion narrative would it not be better to use a resurrection appearance or perhaps the end of Matthew’s Gospel where before he commissions the disciples he tells them “I have been given all authority on heaven and earth” (Matthew 28 v 18). Or even in Revelation where John has a vision of Christ who says “I am the living one I was dead but now I am alive for ever and ever. I have authority over death and the world of the dead.” (Revelation 1 v18) when John saw him, he fell down at his feet like a dead man.

However, when you stop for a moment you realise that this is the pivotal point. This is when everything changed and the establishment of God living with his people in a new and profound way. This is contrary and completely opposite to what we think and currently experience about kingship and authority; this is usually someone wielding power for personal gain and sometimes with no thought at all for anyone else, putting themselves above all others. You do not have to look far to see this and the lengths people go to; to preserve their position.

Christ our King and his kingdom are very different willing to be rejected and suffer and not to return violence with violence not to curse but to pray for forgiveness. To give hope. This is God’s upside down or is it; right way up way of acting and moving in his world. This suffering must happen and is a constant theme throughout all of scripture.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of discipleship expands on this suffering of Christ saying “Jesus must therefore make it clear beyond all doubt that the must of suffering applies to his disciples no less than to himself. Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion. Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.”

We are free to choose or reject; to take up our cross or not; to abandon attachments or not; to be prepared to suffer or not. To surrender to Christ or not. Each of us will tread a different path; have a different cross to bear. For Bonhoeffer who was a Lutheran pastor he was convinced that as a Christian he should work for Hitler’s defeat. This resulted in his arrest and eventual execution by hanging in April 1945.

For us where we are now it will not mean something like that. The early disciples were slow to grasp this concept or were fixed in their way of thinking and could not contemplate it. I suspect we are no different. If pressed I’m sure we would rather settle for an easy life.

Anthony De Mello who was an Indian Jesuit priest in his book of meditations says to us “Here is a simple truth of life that most people never discover. Happy events make life delightful but they do not lead to self-discovery and growth and freedom. That privilege is reserved to the things and persons and situations that cause us pain. Every painful event contains in itself a seed of growth and liberation.” He then invites us to think about an event we were not grateful for, about the feelings it caused to consider whether it is teaching us something we might not know about ourselves. To accept the challenge offered for self-discovery and growth and freedom. What are these negative emotions? Anxiety, insecurity, jealousy, anger or guilt? What are they telling us about ourselves, our values, our way of perceiving the world and life? If we can discover these and find our way; then it may enable us to change a distorted perception or false belief or let go of an illusion we have clung to. It may set us free to surrender something more of ourselves to Christ.

It is not just in the crucifixion narrative that you encounter this different way of kingdom. Jesus lived and demonstrated it all the time he was with the disciples. Think about the people he had time for, the people he mixed with, the parables he told, the healings he performed and his more direct teaching. What about the beatitudes, happy are those who are merciful, happy are those who work for peace, happy are those who are humble, (Matthew 5 v3-11) some of which is echoed in our Old Testament reading from Jeremiah.

If we are to follow our King then this is the template we should look to.

Dave Tomlinson in his book How to be a bad Christian tells a story about a particular funeral he had agreed to take.

It was for a lady called Carol who was a feisty 45-year-old non-conformist who grew up in a sleepy village in Bedfordshire but had moved to London. She was a heavy drinker and had developed a heroin addiction. When he spoke to her father on the telephone, he couldn’t tell him a lot about his daughters’ life, he knew her as a rebellious teenager, a substance abuser and a misfit. He was aware she lived in London and worked in a charity shop but that was about it. They did not expect a more than three or four people at the crematorium. This saddened Dave.

However, as he arrived at the crematorium the next day, he noticed about 40 people standing a little way from the building chatting and rolling cigarettes. The funeral cars were not due to arrive until a little bit later so he decided to go and chat with the group. They were all Carol’s friends and within a few minutes he had a completely different picture and a different story to tell.

They were mostly all volunteer workers in charity shops in North London, unconventional types but they eulogised Carol. One man in his early thirties with spikey black hair a tattooed face and many piercings said most of them had problems but that Carol was like a mother to them. She gathered them in and looked after them. Another who was her shop manager asked to speak at the service where he talked movingly about her maternal qualities. “The charity shops are our families he said. A lot of us had mental health issues but we’ve found a community where we can belong. Carol, he said, was the heartbeat of this family and she looked after everyone.

Carol’s parents were mild mannered middle-class folk who thought they knew their daughter an alcoholic and drug addict but they now heard about a completely different woman. Someone who was wonderful and part of a loving family.

When it was all over, he drove home feeling that he had buried a broken Christ-figure.

Christ’s passion was for the kingdom of God: a vision of what the world would look like if God were king instead of the rulers and politicians. But he didn’t try to introduce the kingdom by way of political strategy or programme but rather he went about spreading a culture of hope and compassion and healing among ordinary people. He broke down prejudice and social barriers and empowered the poor and the marginalised not to turn them into a militant force to overthrow but to generate loving community.

That’s what Carol did, although she may not have realised, she was a servant of God who in her own modest unselfconscious way changed the world immediately around her; those she was in contact with who were wounded.

Carol didn’t set out to change the world she just did what came naturally to her in each situation she found herself in.

So, if we are intent on following our King and letting our passion be for the kingdom of God then there are some things that we might like to think about.

 

  1. Don’t try to change the world – be true to yourself.

Last week Claire spoke about the three S’s silence solitude and stillness. If we are to be ourselves, we need to spend time finding out who we are and who we want to be in the world. I know when I go away on silent retreat my perspective on life changes, at least for a while. Jesus did it in the wilderness so should we; then we will act from our deepest and best instincts. Doing this will change the world because those around you will change.

 

  1. Commit to compassion.

This isn’t feeling sorry for someone but a commitment to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, to feel their pain or enter generously their point of view. Love your neighbour as yourself! Compassion arises from an openness of heart, a willingness to understand other people’s pain, to listen to their hurt and share in their distress. In the business world in which I work it is very results driven and people are pushed hard and I have to remember daily to understand and support those who are feeling the strain.

 

  1. Join with others in seeking to promote justice and peace in the world.

God relies on us to help him make the world a better place. Give thanks that there are many working to combat poverty and disease, feeding the hungry and liberating the oppressed. However, the needs are great and unending.

 

  1. Attend to the present moment.

Pay attention! Be present in the moment. Listen to God’s voice in the needs of those around you and act if necessary. Don’t spend too much time worrying and wishing you had done more in the past or thinking about what you might do in the future God has given you no control over those but you can affect the now. This is something I have to keep telling myself; as a reflective introvert I am always replaying or planning things in my mind and a lot of the time it does me no good.

 

  1. Overcome evil with good.

To act counter intuitively; where there is hatred act out of humility; where there is despair find acts of ingenuity; where there is fear find acts of self-reliance. Acts of love peace and forgiveness will create waves and reverberations however invisible and anonymous they may be.

 

 

 

  1. Look for Christ in the world.

There are many times, places and moments when God appears afresh in our world. None of these eclipses the unique revelation of God in Jesus but look out for God to show up in the most surprising places and through the most unexpected people; and even you and me! I must remember not to be too narrow in my thinking and limit what God maybe trying to do

In his book Dave Tomlinson relates acting in this way to the butterfly effect. This is the theory that a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and sets off a tornado in Texas. This is the recognition that decisions and actions we as individuals take no matter how small can have a role in determining the outcome of the lives of others. So, if we beat our wings in this way; things can change and God’s kingdom will increase.

 

 

Richard Harwood

24.11.19

 

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How can we future-proof the Church?

Second Sunday before Advent,17.11.19

Malachi 4: The Great Day of the Lord

& Luke 21: 5-19: The Destruction of the Temple Foretold

Today Jesus tells it as it is – something we can be poor at in religious life, full as we often are of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’.

 

The invitation to look at the wonders of the Temple, as he and his disciples wander nearby, is a temptation to assume everything will go on the same as it always has; another trap we religious people fall into.

 

Jesus tells his listeners categorically that things are not going to go on the same; the Temple, the symbolic centre and foundation of the Jewish faith, will be dismantled stone by stone.

 

This of course came true in AD70 when the invading Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem and burnt the Temple to the ground. The gold mortar melted and each stone lay about in total deconstruction.

 

Jesus is utterly realistic about the future of the Temple – it will not last into the future.

 

He tells them of its impending demise in the face of an over arching narrative of religious pride and identity and a feeling perhaps that as long as the building remains, the faith will continue.

 

In fact, not one stone will be left upon another – it’s not just going to fall down, it’s going to be dismantled bit by bit until everything is taken back to square one.

 

Dismantling stone by stone is perhaps a fitting metaphor for what has been happening culturally in the West, to the Christian faith, ever since the Enlightenment and particularly since the two World Wars as people lose faith in God as alive and active for good in the world. Whether we call it the modern or the post-modern, it’s continuing apace, and we live our lives as people of faith in this context, for good or ill.

 

Deconstruction in itself is not necessarily bad: I’m all for deconstructing patriarchy in the Church, for example, and I’m in favour of people going to church because they love God, not because they’ve been told they have to. I’m in favour of looking closely at why we say we’re Christian and what that actually means in practice.

 

But the problem with deconstruction is that after deconstructing, you tend to have a whole pile of stones at your feet and you may not know how to make them back into a building that’s fit for the future.

 

So I wondered, as I prepared this talk, if it would be at all possible to ‘future proof’ the Church.

 

Future proofing is a concept used in business to make a company fit for the future – to give it the best chance to survive the stresses and pressures of the future and make it a body fit to survive and flourish.

 

What will flourish of Christianity going into the future?

 

What would Jesus say to us today about how to “future proof” the church?

 

In a sense, the church is already future-proofed by Jesus, when he said: “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”. That much is certain. But even with that backdrop, there are questions and challenges for each local congregation and for each denomination.

 

I think it was former Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, who once said he was personally convinced of the future of the Christian faith, but didn’t know to what extent the Church of England would be part of this.

 

Each succeeding generation is faced with the challenge to pass on the faith in a way that sticks and lasts.

 

It’s not just about making disciples, but making disciple-making disciples.

 

So here are three suggestions for how we can “future proof” the Church. They may be applicable to other church contexts, but I have mainly tried to locate these thoughts around St John and St Stephen’s.

 

They are suggestions to chew over. They are not exhaustive; you will be able to think of others that I have omitted, and so I hope this can become an ongoing conversation.

 

Firstly: To future-proof the Church we need to take the Spiritual Disciplines seriously.

 

I don’t know what you think of when you hear the phrase “Spiritual Disciplines”…

I am deeply formed by the work of Quaker author Richard Foster, who wrote Celebration of Discipline in 1980 – nearly 40 years ago.

 

The spiritual life doesn’t just happen; it is enabled by habits that we get into, of prayer, reading scripture and the 3 S’s: silence, solitude and stillness.

 

The foreword reads as though it were today, not 1980: he writes of what he calls “flabby Christianity”, citing the ‘sad decline in true spirituality amongst the majority of Western Christians. We have neglected our prayer life; we have stopped listening to God; we have been caught by the covetous spirit of our affluent society, and worshipped the false god of materialism. We have exchanged our knowledge of God for heady disputes and theological words, or for religious or social activism. We have forgotten how to be still before God, how to meditate, trapped as we are in the vortex of modern life’.

 

And he wrote this before the age of the Internet!

 

The disciplines of the spiritual life are the way the real life of Christ, which is everywhere and eternally active and powerful, flows through us and out into the world.

 

The disciplines are not an end in themselves; they are the channel through which the water of life flows. If you don’t have a channel, you can’t easily get that life flowing through you.

 

The example is the life of Jesus, who frequently took himself off to the hills to be still and quiet; who went to the wilderness to face his temptations and who discerned the spirits of people.

 

It’s the three S’s that I have had to work most at in the last few years, since I entered middle age. Silence was something I had never properly encountered before the idea of a silent retreat surfaced, in conjunction with getting ordained. I thought it sounded like a terrible idea, a kind of deprivation of the unpleasantest kind.

 

Once I’d had a silent retreat without 44 other Ordinands, I realised you need solitude to get silence. Then I realised that far from being odd, what’s actually odd is the level of constant noise and chatter (both external and internal) that fills our whole lives, all the time.

 

Shops play music, politicians bat away questions by a constant patter of their party’s script; our heads are filled with self justification, fear and endless replayed conversations that didn’t go our way, and this happens from dawn till dusk (or it does in my head, anyway).

 

External silence is vital for internal silence. Internal silence is needful for hearing God’s voice. The fact that most modern people feel that God is entirely distant, if indeed he exists at all, shows us that there is way too much noise for our collective spiritual health.

 

There’s a reason we don’t want to be still and silent, of course – because it means we have to face our pain, and our mortality. And so we are like the disciples – look teacher! – I’m fine; we’re fine; we’re all getting along just fine; look at the edifice of our lives!!

 

But Jesus is always realistic, to the point of being embarrassingly blunt. Not one stone will remain upon another.

 

In a society where “spiritual, not religious” is the new identity, we need to be people who can actually articulate what goes on spiritually in our lives. People are less interested in the fact you go to church, read the bible and attend a house group. Instead they want to know, how do you meditate; will that help my anxiety? What’s it like to ‘feel God’; what do you mean you ‘love Jesus’?

 

Secondly: we need to give some serious thought to the relationship between contemplation and action.

 

I’m all for contemplation; it’s a way of prayer that I’m trying to grow into. In short, I’d describe it as a retreat from words; an adventure into the mystery of God and a chance to step back from the busyness of life and get things in perspective – to grow in epistemological humility.

 

BUT, sooner or later one is back in the busyness of life and even now I hate writing/saying that phrase. I dislike being told: “I expect you’re so busy” because it would be so easy to become a religious functionary and I believe that sadly you can actually be a functionary in the Church, without having a vibrant spiritual life.

 

But when you say you’re not busy, people assume you’re slacking. Because being not busy is so utterly counter-cultural these days.

 

I was talking with a friend of a child in year 3 recently (rising 8 years old). She was mourning a time when children of 8 went to each other’s houses for tea. These days, in her context at least (and this won’t be true of all contexts) the 8 year olds have no time to go to tea because they’re too busy going to all their extra curricular activities. They don’t know how to stop and they don’t know how to be bored.

 

We are a church of many activities – it’s one of the GOOD things about us. But this week someone asked the question, what is the difference between a church doing lots of activities and a secular run organization also offering toddler groups and lunch clubs? ‘We’re offering Jesus’, was one answer. ‘What does that even mean?’ came back the very valid question!

 

Living a life of contemplation is perhaps beautifully simple. Living a life of action is perhaps beautifully simple; what’s difficult is combining them in a truly holistic, authentic and transformative manner. Putting on social events in order to convert people is not good enough.

 

It has to be something to do with the flow of love that comes down the channel of our lives so that others cannot help but be refreshed. The people who might be able to articulate what this feels like are the people who come into the café and church each day, even perhaps the people who live near the church and who have Christian neighbours. Perhaps they are the ones to say what contemplation and action feel like on the receiving end.

 

In Reading College this week there was a short Service of Freedom and Remembrance led by the Chair of Churches Together in Reading, Mike Penny, which I was delighted to take part in. Reading College has a large atrium around which people can gather and look down on the action below. I was amazed that the top floor became completely filled with students who had all chosen to be there at 10.50am.

 

Members of the media department had been drafted in to read some short pieces about World Freedom Day, which is marked on 9 November, and this was linked with Remembrance, and a Salvation Army bugler played the Last Post and the Reveille.

 

As Mike did his short talk, referring to the thousands who’d died to preserve our freedom, there was definitely that something ‘extra’ there, very hard to quantify, impossible to pin down, but he had the attention of scores of young people, most of whom, I would guess, were Unchurched, from families where any form of active Christianity has not been a reality for 3 or more generations. He shard his faith that when we die we simply fall asleep in Christ, that there is hope in the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

 

He had their attention because the life of Christ was there, it was flowing; it was tangible. From having no active Christian presence formerly, the College has now got a Chaplaincy Team and a yearly act of worship at Remembrance. It was effective because it was action and contemplation held in an intentional and very creative tension.

 

And thirdly: Jesus.

 

When Jesus foretells the total deconstruction of the Temple, he doesn’t leave it there. One of the charges against him is that ‘this fellow said’ destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.

 

In his death and resurrection Jesus relocates the spiritual life of the Jewish people in himself, in his own body. As an offering, it is rejected nationally, but taken up by a few disciples. Against all the odds, the idea of a faith that is internal before it is external, is born, and has gone on to dominate the Western imagination ever since. We enact our faith in the body of Christ as the locus of our salvation every Sunday as we share bread and wine.

 

The idea of self giving love as the overarching meaning of our lives continues to inform the way society works, whether it is attributed to God or not. “Can you be good without God?” is one of the most interesting questions we might ponder philosophically. Most of society seems to have decided the resounding answer is: yes, you can. But is it that simple?

 

I’m reading the historian Tom Holland at the moment. His book Dominion, was born out of his research into ancient civilizations and their values.

 

He’s admitted in several interviews recently, and in an article published in The Spectator in April, that as a lapsed Anglican, his assumption was that values of tolerance, equality and the worth and dignity of all human beings were universal. Meanwhile academically he immersed himself in the study of cultures where it was absolutely assumed that might was right.

 

The gods of ancient Greece and Rome were capricious and jostled with each other for power. The Lord of a Greek or Roman household had the right to treat the members of his household, whether slaves, young men or women, in whatever way he pleased – including sexually – and it was in no way questioned. No one mentioned that his or her human rights were being disregarded. Slavery was considered utterly normal.

 

The more he studied the values of ancient societies the more Holland realised that his own values, un-moored though they were from a personal practice of Christianity, were nonetheless completely informed by the example of a God who became man and gave himself up to death on a cross, three days later to rise to new life.

 

This is how we see society today, it seems. All the important battles are being waged over equality. How can we have a just society where everyone gets a bite of the cherry? A Health Service free at the point of need and an education system that works for everyone are frequently at the top of political agendas and no one thinks it odd.

 

Christmas adverts are always about getting together, fellowship and love, and cute dragons that need to be given a chance to blow their flames over a Christmas pudding rather than destroy a dinner party with the mighty breath of their mouth (John Lewis).

 

Community, love, caring for the weak – those are the values that sell stuff – not: “ buy this cheap piece of clothing and you will be oppressing a single mother in Bangladesh who can’t afford to feed her family”. That sort of slogan doesn’t sell stuff in a society that is, to use Tom Holland’s phrase, ‘irredeemably Christian’.

 

So if we’re ‘irredeemably Christian’, how come so many people have given up on organized Christianity? And how can we address this in our own context?

 

Jesus goes on in the passage to speak about witness. We’re into the apocalyptic here; persecution is coming for the disciples; indeed “you will be hated by all because of my name”. It’s one of the most chilling statements in the New Testament. But they will save their souls by relying on him to give them the words they need. For us this might mean holding out for wisdom in an age of information.

 

It provides us with a challenge. To continue the bodies, not buildings metaphor, the subtle thing about us humans is that we are rather prone to putting in alternative foundations. God is very gracious and he knows that is the risk with religious people.

 

The way it’s supposed to work is, as the hymn goes, is: “Christ is made the sure foundation”, but we are prone to building on alternatives.

 

The Ten Commandments (shorter version) gives us “Love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself”, and there you have the contemplation and action dynamic – your spiritual, your social and your psychological health all tied up beautifully in one sentence.

 

Those spiritual disciplines help us check we are still building on Christ, as individuals and as a church. “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”. The sort of church that is future proofed, is the Church that is built on Christ, composed of lives that are built on Christ.

 

What that means for you will be very personal, but it has to do with going deeper. This is hard when you’ve been a Christian a long time, when you’ve been in the same church for a long time.

 

The longest I’ve ever been involved in a single congregation was 11 years, at Shiplake. It nearly drove me bonkers. And was, at the same time, the most fruitful time spiritually, because I was forced to keep asking: “Is this all there is?”

 

If you’ve stopped asking “is this all there is?” maybe it’s time to check the foundations of your building.

 

Ignatian insights can be hugely helpful – not only are you reading the bible story, you’re in it. A spiritual director can ask you the questions about your prayer life no one else will. Spiritual disciplines of silence, solitude and stillness, along with typologies such as the Enneagram, can help us to look at our inner motivations, which can often remain largely unexamined…

 

It’s high time to draw things to a close.

 

How can we future-proof the Church? How can we build something long lasting out of the often healthy, but disorientating, deconstruction of post modern-ism?

 

By practising and growing together in the Spiritual Disciplines, by exploring deeply the relationship of prayer to action, and by making sure our foundation is Jesus Christ.

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Two men went up to pray…

Eucharist, St John’s and St Stephen’s 27 October, end of Creation Season.

Joel 2:23-end & Luke 18:9-14

The last Sunday in October is traditionally Reformation Sunday. So perhaps it’s fitting that we think today about a parable of Jesus addressed to ‘some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous’.

 

This little parable, which might be regarded as a small piece of dynamite that is just plunged into the Lukan narrative and left to detonate, is perhaps unusual in that we get to have that little introduction that ‘explains’ it, before we read it: ‘He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt’.

 

So we have Luke’s redaction about self-righteousness slotted before the parable for today, along with his parable of the persistent widow, the little children who parents are bringing for Jesus’ touch, and later the salvation of Zacchaeus the hated tax collector.

 

So it feels as if Luke is banging home his message, of salvation being free, and being for all, especially ‘sinners’. Those whom we least expect to receive forgiveness from God are the very ones whom God has noticed and whom God wants to lift up. The message of salvation is an inclusive message.

 

So it’s a very short, but deceptively profound parable. In it we see two different approaches to prayer and to God, illustrated by the Pharisee and the tax collector. They are different on a number of levels, not least their physical posture, from which we are to deduce their heart posture.

 

We read that the Pharisee was ‘standing by himself’, but the Greek has, literally, ‘The Pharisee, having stood, to himself was praying…’ So he’s either standing alone, or, worse, praying to himself! Although he addresses God verbally, his heart is not in the right place. We never stand alone when we pray; instead we enter into the merciful presence of God and, on Sunday, of each other. Some of you will be familiar with the Order for Night Prayer, or Compline, which begins, “Most merciful God, we confess to you, before the whole company of heaven and one another…”

 

By contrast, the tax collector (or for our day, read “unethical banker”) stands at a distance and is not willing even to raise his eyes to heaven. That is a very different physical stance and heart stance – and the one mirrors the other.

 

When a preacher looks round a congregation, the body stance of various people is sometimes significant! I’m sure it would never happen here, but hands thrust casually in pockets while we confess our sins, or sitting with one’s arms firmly across one’s chest during the sermon, do communicate something of what might be, or might not be, going on inside…

 

So much for the body in prayer!

 

Now to the words of our two contrasted characters.

 

The Pharisee prays a prayer of thanksgiving, which might seem to us arrogant in the extreme because he basically thanks God he is not a sinner. He is not like other men, those ones who cheat, the unrighteous, like this tax collector.

 

It’s a classic case of being right, and so wrong all at once. It is good, if you think about it, NOT to be a cheat, either cheating people out of money, like those swindlers who phone up the elderly and get them to deposit large sums of money in what turns out to be a false bank account. This happened to the elderly mother of a friend of ours in Pangbourne, and the lady lost £5,000. Luckily the bank reimbursed her (an ethical banking action). But aren’t we glad this church isn’t full of swindlers?

 

Or people who cheat on their spouses? Aren’t we glad that, by the grace of God, we aren’t that type of person? Surely the Pharisee is technically right that it is a good thing NOT to be a cheat, not to be unrighteous?

 

He is right, technically, but that’s not how prayer and heart stance work!

 

His inner stance is wrong. Therefore his prayer is wrong.

 

Did you know you can be ‘right’ verbally (or in your actions) but wrong in your heart? I suppose we might call it speaking the truth without love. Or you could be engaged in virtue signaling without knowing your own brokenness. When you speak the truth without love, it is still truth, factually, but it isn’t ‘the way, truth and the life’.

 

And you can have right action without right motive – philosophers have discussed this for centuries. The Pharisee tithes and he fasts. Tithing and fasting are two very good spiritual disciplines. The first pays for your church building project, and the second curbs your appetites.

 

But disciplines that are ends in themselves do not necessarily allow for the life of God to flow through us and out to the world. Disciplines are tools, not ends in themselves. So you can be a giver, or a cheerful giver. You can be a miserable fast-er, or you can be seeking to be free inside and choosing a fast to draw nearer to the One for whom you really hunger and thirst.

 

By contrast, the tax collector (unethical banker) is contrite. He cannot even look up to heaven but prays that most basic prayer, which would become the most ancient of prayers of the Christian church – Lord have mercy on me a sinner – The Kyrie Eleison.

 

So here are the goodie and the baddie turned on their head by Jesus for his listeners. The ‘good’ person (Pharisee) is the one who went away NOT right with God, and the ‘bad’ person (tax collector) was the one who went away right with God. Because it was all about heart stance.

 

And then the trap is set. Because you know there is always a trap in a parable, don’t you?! And we can fall headlong into it.

 

We might not be thanking God that we are not like so-and-so, but how many times have we secretly thought something along those lines?

 

One of the most common subtle versions of the Pharisee’s attitude, of which I have been guilty, is when we have contempt for someone whose Christianity isn’t inclusive enough. Being inclusive is where some of the best and hardest battles in society are currently raging, as we try and come to terms with difference and give a voice to minority groups who have often been at best ignored, at worst persecuted.

 

So, recently there’s been a social media storm over derogatory comments made about Beth Moore, a prominent female Christian speaker in the States. If I read of a Christian leader who wants to exclude another from ministry on the grounds of gender or sexuality, I do feel superior to them. I feel that my Christianity is a better Christianity than theirs. It’s a better Christianity because it’s more inclusive, and Jesus was inclusive, right?

 

And factually I might well be right, but I need to watch my heart stance. There’s none so intolerant as those who have newly discovered a more tolerant attitude in themselves and then look about and wonder why others haven’t become as enlightened as they have. It is but a small step to contempt, I can assure you. And what is difficult to take, is that God still loved the Pharisee, and doesn’t hold him in contempt but continues to call him.

 

Another trap for church people that I have fallen into is the mildly superior way we assess all our Christian long service, and some of us have served the church for many years, and it can be wearying. God hears our weariness. Where are the next tranche of people to take over from us, we might be asking ourselves. And sometimes there is no obvious next tranche. It is a challenge for us to keep our hearts tender and not to feel hard done by. It is all God’s work anyway and we serve a gracious God who calls us to be mindful only of our own need for grace. Whether others are serving as hard as us or not, is not ours to worry about. The spiritual life contains many hidden temptations to compare ourselves with other Christians, even before we get to full blown contempt.

 

So where is the Good News on Reformation Sunday, in this little explosive parable? The promise is that righteousness is not by our own outward attempts at goodness. We can go home justified today because we can throw ourselves on God’s mercy and lay burdens down, trusting in God’s provision.

 

Because: “Thus far has the Lord helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).

 

The Good News is that grace always precedes our hard work and continues after we lay it down.

 

“I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten,
26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you” (Joel 2:25-6).

Thanks be to God.

 

 

(lyrics on picture: Switchfoot)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Grateful Samaritan

Sermon for Trinity 17C (aka Creation Season)

13.10.19

Luke 17:11-19

Don’t be surprised if faith is found amongst those we don’t tend to notice, who are continually noticed by Jesus.

 

It’s a case this morning, not of the Good Samaritan, but of the grateful Samaritan.

 

Luke is often at pains in his gospel to highlight the universal nature of the Good News – it is, literally, for all people.

 

It is in Luke that we find Mary and Elizabeth, two women who get together to share their pregnancy stories, like women have always done, and through whom, in the babies they will bear, the salvation of the world will be set in motion.

 

It is in Luke that we find Simeon and Anna, two very elderly people whose longsuffering faith in the coming Messiah has been noticed by God, even at their great age.

 

And it is Luke who holds before us the Good News which is for everyone, which is not tribal, but universal; “the Universal Christ”, as Richard Rohr puts it.

 

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will arrive in chapter 19.

 

He is on the way – both literally on the road between Galilee and Samaria – and on the way of the cross, having set his mind upon a course of action that will result in his own self giving for the world.

 

As is the way of Jesus, he comes to a borderland area, between two places – Galilee and Samaria. Jesus often inhabits the liminal (in between places) and he calls us to do the same.

 

Boundary spaces are places where faith is possible, where the action of God may break in, where you’re between two worlds, as it were.

 

Any change or new situation calls for courage (I tell myself this every day). Change is the boundary between what we knew that was familiar, and what is emerging, which is unfamiliar.

 

I suppose we’re in such a season as a church. I certainly am, as a minister.

 

Maybe you’re in a season of change yourself, on the border between what you have known, and what you don’t yet know.

 

This could be due to uncertain health, aging, moving jobs, taking up a new course or post, facing a new challenge or facing up to something that’s gone wrong.

 

These borderlands are where our faith is particularly tested – where our faith can either stagnate or it can grow.

 

Be encouraged that the borderlands and the boundary spaces are Jesus’s speciality. You can be sure to find him there, watching out for you, inviting you, surprising you, calling you, waiting for you.

 

So here is Jesus, journeying through the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee, heading from life to death, as it were, on the way of the cross.

 

And he encounters ten lepers.

 

For cultural, religious, social and hygiene reasons, they keep their distance.

 

This is not going to be one of those miracles where Jesus touches people, where he lays hands on someone to make them clean.

 

Keeping their distance the lepers call out, addressing Jesus as Master – a term normally reserved for disciples.

 

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

 

It is enough.

 

Jesus first response is “Go and show yourselves to the priests”. ‘And as they went’ (we read) ‘they were made clean’. It’s all very practical. The priests will rubber-stamp their entry back into the religious life of the community; they’ll become full members of society again, and they’ll return with joy to their families. Job done.

 

As dramatic shows of miraculous power go, it’s all a bit low key.

 

But that’s not the end of the story!

 

Because there’s always another part to healing, and that’s what’s going on on the inside.

 

It would seem that only one of them had any internal response to what had happened alongside the physical healing.

 

One of the ten saw that he was healed and turned back. He responds to the gift of healing with a recognition that God has been at work.

 

I hope we are a church that is becoming more and more sensitive to seeing God at work. There are ways to foster that seeing: I don’t know if you have heard of the Examen….

 

It’s a prayer where we take 5 minutes at the end of each day to review the day in the light of God’s Spirit.

 

We ask ourselves, where did I see God at work? Or, for what did I feel most grateful today? Where in the day did I sense the most connection, the most love, the most significance? Because that was where the Spirit might have been at work…

 

When we do a prayer like the Examen, and give permission for God to shine the divine light onto the events of the day, we discover all sorts of things.

 

  1. God is in the every day.
  2. God is concerned with reality, not what we think we should be feeling, but what we really are feeling. What we feel does matter, and is often different to the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ we were brought up on. Jesus is always into inner freedom.
  3. God is constantly at work in the world.

 

The leper who turned back had a light bulb moment. He saw that God had been at work – he “saw” that he had been healed. His healing wasn’t a tick box moment, which meant he could go to the priest and get just what he wanted, even though what he wanted (to be socially and religiously reinstated) was perfectly legitimate.

 

He saw that God had been at work inside him too. When we do the Examen, when we’re prayerful, and review the day in the divine light, or talk to someone else about the day, we see that God has been at work, and our faith is built up.

 

So the leper who’s been healed sees and turns back. He does an action, which puts him on a course directly towards Jesus. So there’s a direction in this story. The nine walking away; the one is walking back to Jesus. And he praises God and falls prostrate at Jesus’s feet and thanks him.

 

He sees, he turns and he runs back leaping and praising God, and worshipping Jesus.

 

And then Luke has a short dynamite-like sentence: “And he was a Samaritan”.

 

Luke is just getting that in because it is supposed to upset the apple cart. It is supposed to upset assumptions that everyone then knew who were the goodies and the baddies, the spiritual and the unspiritual. To the Jew, a Gentile was a pagan but a Samaritan was an enemy.

 

And humans like nothing better than to know who the enemy is. We’re no different. When notions of who the enemy is and who the good guy is get upturned, we feel extremely uncomfortable.

 

When I saw a picture in the newspaper of ISIS fighters being kept in crowded prison cells, body upon body so close together you could hardly tell them apart, I felt pity. And I also felt uncomfortable. They’re the enemy, right? One is not supposed to feel pity for the enemy.

 

Once I talked to a Christian who was considering voting UKIP in the next election and I wanted to label their faith as wrong and defective; I wanted to stop having a drink with them in the local pub; and walk out, but I couldn’t because he was my brother in Christ.

 

When I think of the Union Jack and how all the different colours of the flag represent peoples that the English have dominated throughout history, I am reminded that coalitions of countries rarely work for all parties, but only for the dominant group, of which I have traditionally been a part; being as I am, English, white, middleclass, educated and part of the Established Church.

 

So we have lost the shock of “And he was a Samaritan”, especially as we all love The Samaritans now; they’re so kind and caring on the phone when you have no one else to talk to.

 

Jesus draws attention to this “foreigner” – this Samaritan. “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God?”

 

The leper gives thanks – Eucharisto = I give thanks. He gives thanks using the same word from which we get Eucharist, the ultimate thanksgiving for Jesus offered for us. The Samaritan is held up by Luke as a model response to the gospel.

 

One commentator has asked, of this passage, “Who are the outsiders that reflect back God’s kingdom to us?” Because probably we cannot trust our own limited view of the kingdom.

 

What a good question for us church people who know the bible and who come to worship every Sunday.

“Who are the outsiders that reflect back God’s kingdom to us?”

 

As World Mental Health Day has been marked this week, I give thanks for “L” who worshipped in our church. She lived with bipolar disorder and had suffered for many years under a mental health misdiagnosis, which had led to some harsh drugs that left her worse than before.

 

As I turned up at my first village fete as a new curate, feeling pretty out of place and exposed, I noticed her because she was a bit different. I saw her fix her gaze on my dog collar, and I was that she “saw”. Most other people either pretended not to see, or couldn’t have cared less that there was a new priest at large in the village. “Are you our new vicar?” she asked in a loud voice.

 

She became a faithful prayer partner for a number of years, and was often the person who was able to “see” when others could not. She’d been on the edge and was therefore good at sensing when other were too. She couldn’t watch the news without crying. Frankly, hers was the right response.

 

Perhaps it’s the combination of being doubly outside – a leper and a Samaritan – than occasions this outpouring of praise and thanksgiving.

 

A bit like the woman who sinned much, who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears whilst Simon the Pharisee ‘intuited’ that Jesus couldn’t have been very spiritually switched on…

 

As we learn today from an outsider who encountered Jesus, may be we can pray for awareness of where God is at work amongst us, and especially in our community, as people come in weekly for the Café and related gatherings.

 

We are very lucky here that someone had the vision to join up church, school and community in this amazing building.

 

God is drawing people into fellowship with himself and sometimes we get to be involved – what an amazing privilege. Thank you to all of you who are here, willing to be involved in the work of God – the work of healing and wholeness – which is salvation.

 

Because if we are looking for neat demarcations between who is healed and who is saved in this story, I think we’ll be disappointed.

 

Jesus tells the healed Samaritan “go on your way; your faith (belief = pistis) has made you well, or ‘has saved you’.

 

The other 9 were also made well. But were they ‘saved’? I don’t think we can hope to have that neat detail wrapped up.

 

Salvation and healing are the same word in the NT, so we, against all our tribal instincts, are forced to embrace the God who embraces all – the outcast, the stranger, the one who is different.

 

In doing so, our faith and our vision expand. We find ourselves in the borderlands, unsure because God is upsetting the apple cart, and showing us that we are not the sole custodians of the Faith.

 

We are discovering a saviour who is walking the borderlands where things are uncomfortably alive, and where the stranger sees more than we do.

 

The grace to be able to follow Jesus there, among the un-noticed, amongst the stranger, is available to all of us.

 

Thanks be to God.