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Anthony Falbo - Be anxious for nothing

Religion and Anxiety

Religion and Anxiety

What is religion for? I know there are some Christians who don’t like to describe themselves as religious (‘they have a relationship with God, not a religion’) but I think it is a useful term. The root of the word ‘religion’ may mean to bind up again (the same root gives us the word ‘ligament’): ‘religion’ is to bind something up again, to put something back together which had fallen apart. In short, religions aim to fix things – and they do this by giving us rituals and structures that repeat themselves. Helpfully, this means that we don’t have to imagine what God might be like afresh each week and how we should approach this God – we have a liturgy, an order of service, that helps us.

Of course, whether we allow these religious structures to help us actually get back in touch with God or whether we treat them as something to be worshipped in their own right is a moot point. Those Christians who feel uncomfortable using the term ‘religious’ rightly put their finger on what happens if we simply allow ourselves to get hooked on tradition. So, religion, I’d like to suggest, is a neutral thing. Whether being religious is good or bad depends on the aim and the spirit with which it is carried out.  Religion that takes a fragmented, disjointed human life, and puts it back together with the intention of making a violent person is clearly bad religion; but religion which takes fragmented and disjointed lives and puts them back together to make peaceful people is clearly a different matter. And, it seems to be, that any particular religion can be at times good or bad…

Why the lecture on religion? Last Sunday I attended a Creationist event at a local Catholic church. You’d be correct in thinking it’s not my natural haunt. I listened for several hours to two impassioned speakers earnestly speaking about how the Earth was only six thousand years old; how Genesis chapter 1 had to be interpreted as a historical account; how there was a real Adam and Eve; how there was a great flood that covered the whole earth at once. Questions about carbon-14 dating were raised; statements from previous popes and saints were adduced proving the authority of scripture as historically true about the Garden of Eden. And to cap it all I was shown a photograph of an 800-year-old carving which was said to depict a stegosaurus, thereby proving that dinosaurs must have been around only recently.

If you’ve ever been to an event like this it’s easy to get sucked in, either in agreement or in passionate disagreement. But I’d decided to try to control my temper by taking notes because what I really wanted to do was to understand the structure and motivation of the argument: what was it that could drive these speakers to give of their precious time to share their beliefs: what was so important to them?

It turned out that questions about science weren’t in the driving seat. No: it was anxiety that was the driver. In this case anxiety about changing sexual identities and roles today. You see: the speakers believed that if you did want to reaffirm traditional Catholic gender roles for men and women, and to reassert that heterosexuality should be the norm, then you needed the Genesis story to be historically true: for it was in Genesis 1 that God had revealed the perfect template for human sexuality: Adam and Eve together in the garden. But if evolution threatened the historical truth of Genesis 1, evolution had to be shown to be wrong.

Now, this seems to me a case of the dogmatic tail wagging the scientific dog: a problem with restating traditional Catholic morality resulted in an argument that tried to  overturn the last century and a half of biological thinking. Now, whatever we think a Christian view of sexuality and gender ought to be (and that should certainly be something we care about and argue over), nevertheless, I think that most of us would agree that denying the day-to-day work of modern biologists is probably not the best way to do it. Or, if I can try to put it more pithily: if we’re unsure of what our doctrine should be, the answer won’t be found in doing worse science, it’ll be found in doing better theology.

But, stepping back from these questions, what interested me most was to discover the role of anxiety: this anxiety about LGBT+ rights and around the apparent loss of heterosexual marriage. You’ll recall that a while back I mentioned ‘religion’ may mean to put back together again what is disjointed? Here was a case of religion trying to put some disjointed, worried faithful traditionalist Catholics, back together. But (I dare to observe) I don’t think it was very good religion. Not just because it rested on bad science, but because it was driven by an anxious need for security.

So here we get to the actual sermon: how do we deal with insecurity? Insecurity about anything – in our relationships, in our work-life, when it comes to our health or our future?

How can religion help with anxiety? One response might be to look to Christianity to provide us with firm answers. And it does provide us with some. Jesus was, in some ways, deeply conservative and firm about several matters: think of the Sermon on the Mount’s attitudes to money, forgiveness, non-violence. But in other ways the religion that Jesus shares with us is at the same time radically liberal, particularly when it comes to dealing with anxiety…

In our Gospel reading this morning we hear about the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep for the one that was lost; and about the woman who sweeps the whole house to find the one lost coin. What could each of them have done instead? I guess the shepherd could have said, ‘Well, I still have 99! Never mind, I’ll focus on protecting what I’ve still got’. And what of the woman who had lost one of the coins which were often worn as jewellery and probably consisted of her precious dowry – her only source of independent wealth? I guess she could have spent the day shopping for a very strong box, then polishing each coin in turn and placing it safely inside, vowing never to wear them again. (That suggestion reminds me, by the way, of a story of the Queen visiting an elderly lady for tea. Whilst sipping from her mug the Queen points to some fine bone china on the dresser. ‘Those look lovely’, she says. ‘Yes,’ says the lady, ‘I save those for best’.)

But neither the shepherd nor the woman do these things. In the face of the anxiety of loss theirs is not a withdrawal into safety. These are parables that affirm the worth of moving towards what was lost, in hope, rather than seeking to avoid further loss by retreating into greater security.

Of course, both parables are about grace – Jesus is communicating his sense that God’s instinct for love means that God doesn’t avoid risk; God moves towards what is lost, in love and in hope. It’s approach to life that is the opposite of allowing fear to close down… Jesus’s life, rooted in God, incarnates the same attitude: he chooses not to avoid the risky encounter with the polluted or the morally compromised which might lose him favour or put him in the bad books of the authorities, or indeed open him to the challenge that he was being unfaithful to scripture. Indeed, just think of how little time Jesus spends in the Temple (the secure, safe, place); and instead how much time he spends on the margins of Israel. And this divine life which he takes on, Jesus passes to his disciples when he says, follow me… So, in the face of anxiety do we retreat or courageously journey out again?

Two years ago I conducted the funeral of a distant relative, Dick. He was a hoarder: most of the rooms of his house were full to the ceiling with bags stuffed with things that he ‘might one day need’. Dick rarely set foot outside. I think much of the world beyond his door felt to him frightening. But he didn’t start out that way – his hoarding was (I would guess) the end destination of many individual choices to retreat because it seemed the safest option. Few of us are so extreme as that, but all of us have choices about what we do in the face of uncertainty, and one path leads to withdrawal and another, apparently riskier path, leads outwards.

Our anxieties may take many forms: they may focus on our jobs, like the uncertainty of a parish job after a good curacy; or like the uncertainty of a parish as it awaits a new vicar after difficult past experiences… It may deal with our health, mental and physical; our experience of ageing.

And on top of these personal uncertainties we find, too, that we live in increasingly complex times, politically and environmentally. In the face of uncertainty about the effects of climate we could, if we wanted, withdraw into positions of self-protection. In extreme we might try to hide from the painful truth in climate denial; or perhaps start behaving in ways that try only to limit the consequences for ourselves. In the face of difficult international relations, that make us fear losing control, we could say that we have had enough of experts; we could listen to voices which offer simple solutions rather than the complex process of arguing for change.

These things are, of course, easy to say, but far harder to live – for none of us likes anxiety or uncertainty. I find, time and again, that these two responses (each of them offered by different ways of doing religion) can be reduced to two simple gestures: the clenched hand, or the open palm. In the face of whatever uncertainties we meet, shall we cultivate the daily prayer of letting go, ‘into your hands I commend my spirit’; or shall we cultivate the prayer of security: Lord, make me safe?

When it comes to dealing with anxiety, what is it that we want from our religion? As we approach the communion table, it may be that we will find that a clenched hand makes it more difficult to receive what God would like to give us.

Mark Laynesmith, 15 September, 2019

Image . Anthony Falbo – Be Anxious for Nothing

Gary-Creation

Climate, Catastrophe and Uncertain Hope

Luke 14:25-33, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Jeremiah 18:1-11

So a few weeks ago, I gave a sermon riffing on two readings; one from Luke with a very angry-sounding Jesus, and the other, a challenging part of Jeremiah, speaking of false prophets. And afterwards I thought to myself.. “thank goodness I won’t have to do anything like that for a while”…. hmm!

So today with an angry judgement-heralding Jeremiah, and an equally angry-sounding Jesus resounding in our ears – it’s tempting to feel gloom. But I want to talk about HOPE.

And even more so, as we begin our Creation Season, and think about the gift and beauty of the earth, and our inevitable sense of unease at environmental destruction… HOPE seems to be a good territory to explore..

But to speak of Hope, I need to speak honestly and realistically… and to do that I need to name the uncertainty I’m sure many of us feel.. Beyond the personal and political uncertainty we are facing of course, we are facing an even deeper existential uncertainty over our actual existence; the planet, children and grandchildren… We have to ask what does Hope actually look like? Or a phrase I use, ‘what are the contours of hope?’

Certainly it feels like we are at a point where there might be no hope… When I speak with young people, ( ) there is a growing sense of hopelessness, of no future… and the effects are devastating; anxiety, depression, suicide. But how can anyone live without hope? We shudder and lament over these stories, (and hear the echo in our own hearts).

And as we are called upon by the folks of Extinction Rebellion and Dark Mountain to face the most uncomfortable truths about our future… It really is quite terrifying… we need to truly shed tears – like Jeremiah – to feel in our own flesh the wounds of the planet. To find words of hope seems to be increasingly difficult.

As Christians we may speak of hope in Christ.. but again, what does that actually mean? What is the shape of such a hope, what are the contours? We know within ourselves that a simple notion that ‘God is in control’, therefore all will somehow be ok is not good enough. In fact, as we witness in American Fundamentalism; (false) hope has become part of the problem, a denial of reality which only hastens environmental disaster.

In the last sermon I spoke of the prophetic tradition present in both Jeremiah and Jesus. And how Jesus is accessing and re-issuing the same kinds of challenges as Jeremiah did almost 600 years earlier. And in the same way, using bold outrageous, almost absurd, language to illustrate the kingdom of God, false priorities and misplaced dreams…

Jesus and Jeremiah convey their message in forms of Art.. Jeremiah in poetry; Jesus in parable – and both in actions.

So let’s begin by looking at some art…

800px-Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

This is ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ by Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th C. German romantic landscape painter.

The romantic era emerged from a growing disillusionment with an increasingly materialistic society. A widespread idea was a strong belief and interest in the importance of nature. This is particularly felt in the effect of nature upon the artist when surrounded by it – and preferably alone. Romanticism correlated with a new spirituality – particularly a mystical relationship with nature – revealing the grandeur and awe of the natural world.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1817) shows a solitary figure (not Boris Johnson!) standing on a rocky outcrop gazing out over a vista of hills and mountains veiled in a sea of fog. The fog stretches out beyond the mountains eventually mingling with the cloudy sky. Writer Ron Dembo says that the Wanderer is a metaphor for the unknown ‘future full of risks; indistinct, hazy and obscured by fog. ‘How should we travel in this mysterious landscape?’ We – like the wanderer – yearn for the same vista where we can see a future beyond the waves of cloudy uncertainty and mystery..
That uncertain future seems to be where hope stumbles.

We often think of God like this too; Jeremiah implies that the potter is in control; defining history, shaping events, moulding us, making everything fit in some elusive plan..

But doesn’t such an attitude render us powerless? If God is in control, then is there anything we can do to affect the future? (that question challenges how we understand God to be..)

So dare I make an alternative suggestion…

When a potter works with clay, or a sculptor works with wood or stone, or when an artist picks up a brush, they never simply impress their idea onto the clay, the canvas, the wood or the stone… (I might dare to say something about music!).

Although there is an intention – there is also something of a negotiation; artists tell of how the developing work speaks to them, how they take care to listen and engage with their chosen material..

At St Ives, I read Barbara Hepworth’s words ‘One must be entirely sensitive to the structure of the material that one is handling. One must yield to it in tiny details of execution, perhaps the handling of the surface or grain, and one must master it as a whole.’  (A bit like this preacher daring to speak of God!)

This understanding changes how we see the potter in Jeremiah… and therefore suggests an alternative way of thinking about God.. the potter works with the clay, yielding, feeling, intuiting, tactile feedback evokes form.

Similarly, some (Process) theologians now speak of God as almost ‘ahead of time’ not ‘above time’.. evoking possibilities from us, inviting and discovering with us, working out ways of being… (Let that idea settle for a moment..)

God adapts, responds, and invites possible futures to emerge.. Calls us (from the future) to become more fully ourselves, more human, working with our possibilities and potentials. Is this the living fountain?

We began the service (deliberately) with the reading from Deuteronomy, as YHVH – dressed in cloud and fire – opens such possibilities to the fledgling Israel.. “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse – now choose life..”
The potter responds with the clay to discover an unknown potential – It’s open, its invitational, its relational…

Its maybe a radically different perspective – and it might be helpful!

Charles Causley’s (Cornish) poem ‘I am the Song’ points to this inversion; reflects a deeper entwined relationship…

I am the song that sings the bird.
I am the leaf that grows the land.
I am the tide that moves the moon.
I am the stream that halts the sand.
I am the cloud that drives the storm.
I am the earth that lights the sun.
I am the fire that strikes the stone.
I am the clay that shapes the hand.
I am the word that speaks the man.

(Which is nice Gary – but I thought you were going to speak about Hope?!)

And that’s the problem.. though I want to speak of hope – I cannot speak of hope in any concrete way.. when we are thinking about the fragility of the planet and our eco-system – how can we speak with hope which doesn’t sound delusional; or even worse, complacent, when the world is already suffering?

We do need to be truly careful and truthfully realistic… yet somehow we find ourselves held by a holy story which draws us towards hope. An elusive, hard to grasp, possibly weak, yet insistent hope in the future.

Which maybe is what Jesus is echoing under the shock of his inflammatory ‘family-busting’ words; He seems to be suggesting… hold on to nothing that you normally would. Hold on to no thing at all, even the things you hold most dear. Could that include our ideas of ‘hope’ – if such ‘hope’ is merely a denial of reality?

Jesus is once again the shibboleth, the dividing line; his way challenges us to our core.. and inspires us to look again with a new understanding towards God. It’s like he’s saying hold on to nothing you can make or contain – because God is beyond anything you can make or contain. So too Hope is beyond anything we can make and contain…

But hope is something we can still discover, encounter and live with…

We’ve heard a lot from Jeremiah these past weeks; but a few chapters later (Jer.32) comes the odd detail of Jeremiah buying a field from his cousin.. (Babylonian troops were already well across the border…. All hope was lost, but suddenly every things seems to pause as Jeremiah buys this field in occupied land, and honours a Levitical law).
What’s going on? Like our looming environmental catastrophe, the world was already ending for Jeremiah and for Judah… but he enacts an ordinary, straightforward transaction…

Maybe what we fear the most is not the end of the world – but changes to our world. The writer Rebecca Solnit says that, “people have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.”

So … I’m sculpting too; trying to piece themes together in a way that makes sense for us, and maybe – just maybe – reveals some of the contours of hope in the face of devastating uncertainty…let’s conclude;

Jeremiah’s vision of the potter working with the clay offers the suggestion that God working in creative partnership with people and creation; For example, for one moment imagine the idea that regeneration emerges even from fire-scorched forests… nature adapts. God’s life insists with and within nature and even the cycles of destruction and new life (Is.45:1-8).

I’m not saying we don’t fight climate change – on the contrary; But maybe the fight we begin with is to hunger and embody hope… even as we face reality.

Jesus seems to be challenging his listeners that the cost involved in following him is everything.. ‘none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions... (Lk. 14.33) (our security and comfort mechanisms)

Instead Jesus invites us to participate in an evolving and unfolding future.. a future full of uncertainty. We cannot guess what the future might be – and we cannot view a future from some high vantage point …

Instead we find hope by living in hope, living as if hope is already with us.. and hope finds us – maybe in the smallest of acts, (as Richard said last week), even as small as waking up in the morning to face a new day – to choose life.

It makes no sense – and maybe that’s the point. Jeremiah buying a field makes no sense.. it’s utterly absurd. But he chooses to; he chooses life – not death;  and so affirms hope in the future, in humanity, in God.

I cannot tell you what hope looks like for you, (or me!).. we cannot name or point to hope. The contours only make sense when we walk them and feel them under our feet.

But we must come off the mountaintop vantage point.. (we cannot see the future). Instead we descend into the misty valleys; we must face our world, (not rise above it). We are invited to roll up our sleeves with the potter, to enter the uncertainty and to co-create a new emerging reality; one of compassion, humanity and (hope).
GS Collins. 8th Sept 2019

The Poor invited to the feast - Luke 14:15-24

The fountain of living waters

Jeremiah 2:2-13, Luke 14:1,7-14

There can be few more painful experiences than that of a broken marriage. I am very aware that there are people sitting here today who have had exactly that experience. Those of us who are still married, or who are single, can imagine the grief and heartbreak, or have seen it at first hand from our friends. That is exactly the place which our OT reading in Jeremiah 2 takes us. The passage invites us to feel the pain of the breakdown in relationship, in effect the marriage, between YHWH, the God of Israel, and his chosen people. We’re talking several hundred years BC. Listen to some of the language again, God speaking in the first person: ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness…What wrong did your ancestors find in me, that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?…my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord…my people have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water’.

 

Although these words are nearly 3000 years old (that’s the iron age) written to the ancient people of Israel at a time way before cars or airplanes or mobile phones, there is a strong resonance with the world today. The ancient Israelites abandoned YHWH, The Lord – fell out of love with him, if you like, and begun worshipping and serving other gods – gods of war, fertility, wealth, national pride – and then wondered why it all went so wrong. The problem was that the values they then honoured, the things they aimed for, worked for, hoped for, began to change. ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’, said Jesus (Matthew 6:21). No longer sharing, but keeping; no longer taking just what is needed, but more than that to satisfy greed; no longer welcoming the alien, but rejecting him; no longer justice, but injustice. Does that have a contemporary ring? The people who should have been showing the world what its Creator is like – loving, caring, sharing, forgiving – became just like everyone else. In this painful passage from Jeremiah, I am drawn especially to the last verse: ‘for my people have committed two evils: (firstly) they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and (secondly) dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water’(13). A ‘fountain of living water’ – what a beautiful image that God chooses to describe himself! Let that image of what it could be like soak you, fill you, refresh you. This is what God is like! Not a stuffy old man with a long beard, not a policeman in the sky, not a killjoy but like a fountain of cold water on a steaming hot day. Something to plunge into, to play in, to drink deeply of. And living water – water that gives life, that sustains life, that is alive itself. We mustn’t get ahead of ourselves too far, but a few hundred years later a Jewish carpenter turned preacher met a foreign woman at a well and told her, ‘…those who drink the water that I will give will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (John 4:14). Alas, that wasn’t what happened. Instead of accepting the offer of divine grace like a fountain, flowing and bubbling, they turned to the worship of other things instead – like looking for another source of water to keep them alive – but instead of the flowing, clear water that YHWH offered, they built stagnant cisterns, water tanks – but even then, they leaked. They could not satisfy.

Last week, as some of you know, I once again visited Taizé, in the company of Ben and Dan Harwood and Alison Peyton. What can I say? It’s a corner of the world where the ‘fountain of living waters’ is flowing. It’s partly the loveliness of the community of people that gathers there. I led a group of young people  from Germany and the Netherlands in Bible discussion each day, and asked them at the end what impression of Taizé they will take away with them – most of them just enjoyed the openness and unconditional friendliness – the way you can talk to anyone about anything, enjoy each other’s company in the way you can’t necessarily back home. Then the beauty of the times of prayer which takes place three times a day in the huge church, the singing, the silence. Young people staying long after the prayer had ended in the evening, often to the early hours, singing, praying and maintaining silence. Added to that is simplicity of living – there is certainly no luxury at Taizé, but who cares? Suddenly you’re not distracted by stuff. There is for me, and for many, a deep sense of the presence of God in that place. It is, simply put, how it should be.

Many people, myself included, are finding the current state of affairs in our country and the world deeply depressing. Beyond all the shenanigans over Brexit – and that’s bad enough – is the stark and undeniable reality of climate change that we are now actually experiencing with too-hot summers, and alternating drought and torrential rainfall. The reasons for climate change are easy to understand – our over-reliance on fossil fuels on the one hand and deforestation on the other. How has all this come about? The reasons are many and complex, but human greed, the desire for more stuff is at its root. Where did we get the idea that the only home we know, that is, planet earth, could be plundered? By using the word ‘greed’ we actually frame it in spiritual terms by using the word ‘greed’. Greed is a form of idolatry, of serving and loving a false god. You might remember from a sermon I preached in Lent that it’s also one of the 7 deadly sins. And it turns out to be a cracked cistern, a water-tank with a hole in it. In the end, it doesn’t work.

At the beginning of the Jeremiah passage, God, through the prophet, speaks of Israel’s ‘love as a bride’. The whole picture of marriage – of YHWH as the husband and his chosen people as the bride – is wrapped around the mutual love of one for the other and the promises made – the covenant between them, in biblical terms. Once Israel let go of that, it was downhill for them. Let’s come back to love. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment in the law he replied without hesitation, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Luke 10:27). He was quoting the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in the OT (Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18). We tend, I think, to focus on the ‘love your neighbour’ bit, perhaps because it’s easier to get hold of. It’s something I think that our church is pretty good at, on the whole. But loving God? This is where I want to land this sermon, for it is the first and greatest commandment and its loss was at the heart of the Jeremiah passage. Placing the love of God first in our lives will orient us in the right direction. Before Rosemary and I start on a walk or cycle ride, we always try and make sure that we start in the right direction! Doesn’t always work, but we’re so much less likely to get lost!

When we love a person, it involves all of us. It certainly involves our hearts – the warmth we feel for him or her, the desire to be with them, to spend time with them. It will involve our bodies, too: we may actually feel love as a warmth in our body, we will want to touch and be touched, to embrace. We will also want to do things for that person, sometimes even putting ourselves in harm’s way or at personal cost for them. It involves our minds as we talk and exchange ideas, share experiences and think about ways our love is expressed: ‘with all your hearts and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’. It’s easier to understand those words when we put them in human terms. Loving God is very, very close to this. In fact, any expression of love comes from God, since as we are told, ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). But, like human love, we will need to give this time. If our relationship with God has become a bit mechanical and dry – do this, believe that – then we may need to refresh. The last time I preached I talked about the need for silence, and silence is a good place to start: the clearing out of our preoccupations and anxieties and giving space for God. Taking a walk in nature – forests, mountains, rivers is a good place to meditate and pray: to be still, to watch and see. There is something called ‘seeing again’, when you look at something and then really see it. Again, this is a bit like falling in love: you see someone and then you really see them and love them. In a way, that kind of seeing actually is love. So to see perhaps a flower, and then to ‘see again’ – to see its beauty, its colours, its frailty and to allow yourself even to love it – and then to realise that this is an expression of the Creator who fills and sustains all things and to love him – now we’re getting there. The love of the natural world, to each other, is very close to the love of God simply because the natural world is an expression of God. We won’t want to trash or plunder what we love.

It is said that the principal Christian virtues are faith, hope and love (see 1 Corinthians 13:13). Personally, I’m finding myself a bit short on hope these days so I’m trying to focus on love – which St Paul tells us is the greatest of these anyway. Brother Roger of Taizé said that in the face of huge problems which it looks as if you can’t do anything about, you should do something even if it’s very small. If our love of God and of all he has made leads us to do something then maybe there is a particle of hope there too.

I’ll finish by mentioning other ways of deepening your experience of knowing and loving God. A retreat is a good place to start, you can have a look at the Retreat Association website. Pilgrimage is another way: the reduction of your life to its bare essentials, just what you can carry on your back; spending time at holy places like Taizé, Iona, Lindisfarne; and engaging with spiritual direction. If you would like to know more about that, please speak to me, or Rosemary or Cathy Rowan after the service.

So, let us be a people of love.

 

Image Credit – The poor invited to the feast, 1973, Jesus Mafa, Cameroon

aziz-acharki-HsXgRlIr4Ls-unsplash

The fire & the passion

Jeremiah 23:23-29 Luke 12:49-56

This week, amid the many depressing items on the news, came the rather bizarre (though no longer surprising) story of a much older man publicly bullying a much younger woman, (almost still a girl). Arron Bank’s ‘joke’ about Greta Thunberg having a “freak yachting accident” as she sailed the Atlantic to raise consciousness of climate change was neither funny, no palatable. Greta has inadvertently become a prophet of our time. I’m not sure how I feel about such a pressurised role upon a single young person, but her stark warnings confront and divide our sensibilities… call us to uncomfortable realities…

In this church, we may generally find ourselves on the side of the climate change movement…
So let’s think about this topic for a moment too;

Fifty years ago the Stonewall movement began to bring solidarity and strength to the LGBTQI+ community. And for fifty years the church has prevaricated, judged, resisted and floundered.. so that in many respects the church has totally lost its place in the discussion. Whilst Bishops still deliberate on wording of placating documents; the rest of the world has all but given up on the church… we can recall Jesus saying the prophet is no longer welcome in her/his own town and shaking the dust off their feet. And if this prophet is gay? No wonder!

Maybe the church has neglected to hear the gospel of love, inclusion, diversity, acceptance and solidarity which has emerged loud and clear from the gay community.
Has the church not listened to God?

So do we really need a gospel reading which seems to encourage the very divisions we are struggling with in society which feels the tension of division very acutely right now?

Well let’s think – The reading today tells of a purifying fire which cleanses the world of injustice and oppression – it supports all that Jesus ministry has been about.

It tells us also that to follow Jesus into the way of love will cause division, much like the gay son or daughter who realises – and fears – that ‘coming out’ means dividing people’s opinions and loyalties, (and maybe me speaking like this?).

And finally a warning about only believing what we want to believe.. (that could be my reading, it may be a more conservative reading); resisting change, denying reality.

So where truly is the voice of God in the prophets? Where are the prophets today? (as Hamish asks).

Jesus language sounds terrifying… it might be better to simply skip over them. They can put us in fear.. give us a religion of uncertainty. But actually, his words are similar to the words of Jeremiah.

The prophets, Jesus & Jeremiah, both ask ‘do you really see what’s going on?’

For Jeremiah it is a world about to collapse.. and false prophets are saying, “no everything will be ok”… (SPOILER – but they wont). Jeremiah also uses fire imagery to reveal a difficult reality.

The whole section of readings around this in Luke are about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of justice and liberation; The kingdom demands and is impatient.. The reading has three parts;

1. Fire cleanses the world of abuse and oppression, it purifies.
in Luke – a manifesto of liberation…. The Magnificat & the ‘Nazareth Manifesto’

God’s fire is prophetic in that it calls the world back to a different reality, it reveals God’s kingdom as one in which people “act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor … the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Jer 22:3).

Fire is the presence of God where evil cannot exist. No wonder Jesus wants to start the fire;

2. It does divide. are you against injustice, are you for love?

Do you really stand with the refugee and the orphan, with the vulnerable and the abused?

(words of consolation to the early church which would have felt the pain of this, and to us today)

3. And finally Jesus – like Jeremiah- warns against hypocrisy from the mouths of false prophets…

Hypocrisy is about deceiving ourselves, and allowing ourselves to be complacent and comfortable…

Hananiah, the false prophet whom Jertemiah challenged… emboldening complacency and hubris; ‘the royal consciousness’.

Jesus; “you may see tomorrow’s weather, but do you see the times?” Are you ready to really hear? Climate change, shifting ideas of sexuality and gender, the rising tide of far-right… voices from the margins – -some are healthy some are life-giving, others we ignore at our peril. The time is short.

Whats also worth recognising is that Jesus see the hypocrisy in all of us… it’s the way we all live, we are hypocritical in many ways.. that’s part of the purifying work of this fire.. it’s not there to shame or to point; instead it recognises that we are all conflicted, complex and messy.

So rather than fear, this reading suggests love; “thy kingdom come” is about the worlds well-being!

We often privatise and personalize our spirituality… when there is a wider vision at hand…

Christianity limits itself when interpreted only as personal piety, good behavior, keeping pure from the taint of… (you name it). This kind of passage is liable to cause paranoia, confusion, self-doubt, dualism and a ‘retreat mentality’ from the world and its bad ways. It promotes what Estella calls a ‘transaction mindset’ in the church “if I do ‘the good thing’ then maybe God will like me, but if I don’t….?”

But the OT and NT have a different take.. The gospel is radical in its vision. It is sociological and communitarian; about households and communities. For teachers like Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus ultimately about the whole world! “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?  Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jer. 23). The radical Hebrew vision of a God both ‘near and far’.

It speaks with people outside the church.. injustice, oppression, racism, inequality.

And, the good news is free; like Gods Holy Wisdom it calls from the streets. We need prophets, we always do – but they often come from unexpected places..

Such a perspective makes a place of common life-affirming humanity – we find solidarity with our neighbours and those concerned about the worlds and its creature.
God’s fire is woven through all these.

Jesus is the passion of God. Representing humanity and holding the fullness of humanity as he draws all to God’s desire for a kingdom of love. Whether humanity knows this – I’ll leave for you to ponder…

And what for the church?

Well, as the flame of Jeremiah’s frustration grew, so also did a hope;

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel […]  “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jer. 31)

The Eucharist recalls this new covenant; the anticipated hope in Jeremiah, of divine love which both causes division and overcomes division. Jesus recalls that covenant, (Lk. 22) the unexpected/impossible hope. In the last supper, he becomes that hope, pointing to both death and new life. The fire and passion of God is given for all the world; – So that all may know the freedom of God written in their hearts.

GS Collins 18aug 2019

Image Credit – Asilah, Morocco. Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

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Ensamma

11 August 2019           Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16, Luke 12.32-40

Ensam – the Swedish word for lonely, also meaning single; sometimes seen on noticeboards – Ensam?  here is this club, network etc you can join.  The picture on our screen today shows a lake a short walk from where our daughter Anna lives in southern Sweden.  There is no one in the picture.  If she and her son go there they will almost certainly be the only ones there.  It’s beautiful, yet it’s also lonely.  Ensamhet – loneliness – is a feature of life in Sweden.  It’s partly the geography – a big country, mainly forests and lakes, with a relatively small population, 1000s of Swedes having emigrated from the countryside in the 19th/early 20th century, especially in Småland where I’m going, because it was almost impossible to scrape a living from the boulder strewn post- glacial land.  Sweden has one of the highest percentages of single person households in Europe.

Perhaps the word stands out for me because I anticipate feeling lonely sometimes while I’m staying in Sweden, away from Richard, my family, my friends, this church, from so much that is familiar.  Sitting in class and learning Swedish will be hard, but I will have to be totally focussed and therefore won’t have space for thinking about how I’m feeling.  In between, though, what will I be doing? I ask myself.  Here, if I’m feeling a bit lonesome I might strike up a conversation with someone walking a dog, or standing at a bus stop.  There, if I want to do that I’ll be doing it in Swedish.  By the time I’ve worked out what to say the moment will probably have passed!

Sweden seems to have developed a culture that tries to counter loneliness in a number of ways.  I don’t know if that is deliberate.  There is a strong emphasis on consensus in decision making, for example; that means people coming together, taking time to reach agreement.  When there is a coffee break at work it is assumed that everyone will sit down together.  The long distances needing to be travelled in order to reach significant events means that often those events are residential – like confirmation- where young people all go off to a confirmation camp for a period of time, living and learning together before the confirmation itself.  St Sigfrid’s college where I’ll be learning Swedish for 3 months is a residential folk high school (‘folkhögskola’) or college, set up in 1942 by the Swedish church as its way of drawing adults together for learning, for community building, and whether deliberately or not, to combat ensamhet, loneliness.  In a country where people are thinly scattered over wide areas building a shared culture, shared values is a challenge.  One small, fun way is by having set days when everyone does the same thing – crayfish day, cinnamon bun day, St Lucia day.  The folk high schools (there are over 150 of them in Sweden) offer a more intensive approach.  The course I’m doing, a basic Swedish language course, is for foreigners who are settling in Sweden (I’m not planning to settle there!).  Staying at the college with a whole mixture of students doing a whole range of courses will help those of us studying there to absorb the values and norms of Swedish society.  Because St Sigfrids is run by the church the chapel is at the centre of life there and I’m looking forward to joining in daily morning prayer there.  And I’ll be praying for all of you there too!

The lectionary has come up trumps today!  I couldn’t have asked for more appropriate readings as I prepare to spend 3 months in a foreign country.  There’s Abraham travelling off into the unknown.  Perhaps I’m a bit like him as I set off for a faraway country, but it’s not unknown to me.  I’ve stayed at St Sigfrid’s before when I’ve visited Sweden with our Oxford/ Vaxjo link committee.  I won’t be living in a tent, like Abraham.  The college is a comfortable place and the food is good.  Nor will I be travelling with my extended family most of whom view my decision to go as, well, interesting, adventurous even, but also a bit bewildering. I do have a sense of call, but to quite what I’m not sure.  That’s where I can identify with Abraham.  Whilst I do know where I’m going, what lies ahead in terms of my call is unknown.

There are some clues though; one is my age.  I’m more aware that life comes to an end, that my end is much closer than my beginning, that I want to travel more lightly, focus on what is most important, on what Jesus calls the ‘treasure’ in our gospel reading.  Where my treasure is there will my heart be also.  This is an inward journey, but it can be helped by an outward journey too, a sort of pilgrimage.  I’d like to see my journey to Växjö in that light and also draw on the experience of pilgrimage in the Swedish church.  They love pilgrimages, even short ones between rural churches!  Even those small journeys mirror that bigger one that we all make through life and eventually beyond death.  But is that why it’s important to them?  I don’t know and I’d like to find out.

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples are an encouragement to be ready for God’s call.  It helps not to be weighed down by possessions.  (cf Jeremy’s preaching on the rich fool last week).  They have to be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice.  That’s not something I find easy so perhaps this journey to Sweden is a way of testing out what that feels like.  And then, just when I’m thinking that this requires quite a lot from me, can I really manage it, I’m given these words of Jesus’ to his disciples, ‘Fear not, little flock, it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’.  I don’t have to try too hard.

Another clue to my call, my reason for going, is family.  Our daughter and youngest grandchild live there.  Anna is having a difficult time.  My classes end at midday on Friday, leaving me free to visit Anna for the weekend.  She lives in the same part of Sweden (Smäland) about 50km away.  My Dad’s mother was Swedish, from the far north of the country, a long way from where I’ll be studying.  She emigrated to South Africa where she met my English grandfather.  Shortly after they came to England my Dad was born and a few months later my grandmother died in the 1919 flu epidemic – exactly a hundred years ago.  I’m named after her.  So, there’s a family connection.

The last clue is faith.  I will experience ensamhet (loneliness) sometimes, but like Abraham and I guess most of you, wherever I go I carry within me a place which is a deeper home than the one where I live in Reading or where I’ll be living in Sweden.  I think of it as being a taste of the heavenly city to which the writer of Hebrews refers in today’s first reading. The heavenly city is something already present inside us, even if only in a small way (like when Jesus says, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’), not something up in the sky somewhere or a place that we only enter after death.  It’s the place within us where we are most at home with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and with ourselves.  It’s our treasure.  I think it was that inner home, that treasure that kept St Sigfrid and his companions steady as they made the hazardous voyage over to Sweden from England in the 10th century, bringing the gospel to what was then a very inhospitable country.  Now, through our diocesan link with Växjö we enjoy a mutual exchange of good news.

St Paul in his letter to Philemon uses a great phrase when telling Philemon of how much he and others have been encouraged by Philemon’s faith.  He says, ‘You, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints’.  I like to think that is what happens when we foster links with brothers and sisters in other countries.  I’m hoping that when I return in November there might be a mutual refreshing of hearts with my sisters and brothers here in this church.

Image Credit – Swedish Flag by Jonathan Brinkhorst on Unsplash

Wake Up

Wake Up and Shake Up!

Isaiah 55. 1-9     Luke 13.1-9

Have you heard the news?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things aren’t what you think they are

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

And here, a brief reflection on Jesus’ teaching.

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

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

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

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

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

After the Siege

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

Beyond Brexit?!

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

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

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

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

Lament

Lament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jesus Calms the Storm

Luke 8.22-25: Jesus Calms the Storm 

2nd Sunday before Lent, 24th February 2019.   

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

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

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

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

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

The common points are: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jeremy Thake
St. John & St. Stephen 

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The Beatitudes

Luke 6 v 17-26

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

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

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

But football analogies only go so far!

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

The first one – Happy/Blessed are you poor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is – Weeping to laughter!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘Rooms to Rent’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bit risky I said.

Yes, but try me, encouraged God.

I’m not sure I’ll let you know.

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

 

Richard Harwood

 

 

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Baptism, Weariness, and the Start of Something New

Isaiah 6,  Luke 5:1-11

May I speak…

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

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

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

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

(Maybe in other areas of life too?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

then..

Receiving something … unexpected.. something totally overwhelming..

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

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

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

And yet …

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

a giving up, in the letting go…

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

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

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

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

Amen

GS Collins 10 February 2019

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