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Remembrance2018

Remembrance Day / Armistice Day.

By quirk of calendar, this day, the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War comes to have two names: Remembrance Day (which is the name for the Sunday nearest the 11th), and Armistice Day, the day that marks the 11th itself. I’m intrigued by those two names, and the different emphases they bring. The name Remembrance Day, of course, brings to mind the task of remembering combatants. Certain symbols guide our focus: the tomb of the unknown warrior in Westminster; the Cenotaph – a symbolic empty stone tomb inscribed with the words, ‘the glorious dead’; the military bugler playing the Last Post, as for 2 minutes we symbolically hold a night-time vigil beside the body of the fallen warrior, and the Rouse, as we reawaken to start the new day.

And there is on this 100th anniversary plenty to remember.

We might choose to focus on the nearly one million British and Empire soldiers whose lives were lost. We might rightly focus with pathos on what those lives might have come to. We might think of the youthfulness of so many of the dead – many the same age as the young University student officer who stood next to me on Friday at our campus memorial (and, indeed, that some were much younger – we now know that a quarter of a million British soldiers were under the age of 18). The sacrifice of young male lives for a bigger cause, thinking “it would all be over by Christmas”: it’s poignant stuff that tugs at the heart, captured rather well in Danny Boyle’s ephemeral sand sculptures that have been created in 32 locations around the coast this morning and that will be washed away as the tide returns – all those unique lives lost. It feels right to remember such things.

On Friday at the University memorial we announced that we would be adding a new plaque with the names of nine more soldier to the existing First World War memorial: names of staff and students who had been overlooked mainly for administrative reasons. I spoke with one of the volunteer researchers involved who had spent hours in the University archive trying to find a photograph of one young man to send to his grandchildren (none of whom ever knew their grandfather). She reported how deeply moved the family were to receive the time and attention. When I questioned the volunteer herself, asking her why she had spent so much energy on such a small thing, she told me (after explaining in no uncertain times that she was not religious) that she felt there was something profoundly important about acknowledging the fullness of what had happened, about telling the full truth, about bringing to the surface hidden or lost things (all of which struck me as profoundly religious).

The same desire for reality and deep truth underlines the film-maker Peter Jackson’s documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, which is being shown tonight on BBC2. Using computer-aided reconstruction, colourisation, and with the help of lip readers to work out what the soldiers were saying, Jackson transforms that grainy, speeded up, black-and-white footage of the First World War, that seems so other to us, into something startlingly remarkably real. As he put it: “the faces of these guys became human beings”.

But if we are inclined towards this deeper reality, sooner or later slightly trickier questions emerge about whether there are, or should be, boundaries to remembering. One of the new names to be added to the University memorial is that of Charles Flint, a 15 year old laboratory assistant. Charles was not in the armed forces, but rather the forerunner to the Merchant Navy, and he died of influenza rather than from violence. He’s buried at Cemetery Junction.

Which prompts me to ask: who else, beyond Allied First World War combatants, ought we to remember today? I note with curious interest the gradual expansion of memory over the decades to include the dead of other conflicts: those of the Second World War, Palestine, Korea, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Iraq Wars, Afghanistan. This past month there have been several stories in the BBC pushing at the boundaries to focus attention on other overlooked groups: the soldiers of the Caribbean, the half million Indian Muslims. But even this is only a work in progress. In the last few years we have seen a remembering of certain civilians, like the previously unrecognised men and women at Bletchley Park; and more remarkably the rehabilitation of the memory of those shot for desertion.

But then there are much more difficult questions: should we remember the other dead? I think especially of civilians, whose names are inscribed in no books of commemoration; who have no cenotaph; and who throughout the past century have exceeded the numbers of military personnel who die in warfare. Do we remember them today, and if not today, when? And, then, should we remember the young idealistic self-sacrificing soldiers on the other side? In New College chapel in Oxford their memorial plaque includes these words: “In memory of the men of this college who coming from a foreign land entered into the inheritance of this place and returning fought and died for their country”, followed by the names of three Germans. Indeed, should we expand our remembering to include not just the people, but the acts done, too, by all sides? These are deeply uncomfortable questions aren’t they? I dare say some might even consider them to verge on blasphemy – and of course to express the emotion like that puts its finger precisely on the problem: which god is being blasphemed, the god of national self-image?

Our first reading today comes from that humorous and starkly self-critical book of the prophet Jonah. It’s a story about a Jewish man sent by God to preach salvation, to preach safety, to Nineveh, the capital city of his country’s worst enemies: the Assyrians, an empire that wiped 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel off the face of the earth. It’s a vocation so awful that Jonah initially flees to Spain to avoid it. And when he finally and reluctantly fulfils his mission, he sits outside the city deeply upset that God has shown such interest in Israel’s most bitter foe, to which God replies “should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left?”. Do we dare to remember the bigger picture?

“Remember”: a word used in two key places in Scripture. In the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy… you shall not do any work … remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” Because those who remember that they were once slaves are more likely to be compassionate on the powerless. And then the famous “Remember” of the Gospels: “do this in remembrance of me,” says Jesus, tie your community meal to the story of one executed by an occupying force, who dared to speak of a different Kingdom because then you will not be tempted to be that force yourself, and you will keep your eyes on God’s kingdom. Memory then, is not just about a feeling warm about the past. To truly and fully remember opens up the present to reconsideration. Remembrance Day ought to challenge what we do now, and to whom.

And that leads into consideration about the other title for today: Armistice Day – a Latin term meaning the “standing-still” of arms, the cessation of fighting, or to put it the other way around: the day of peace. If remembrance should point us with intensity and honesty backwards, to designate a day as a Day of Peace asks us to look forward. It asks us celebrate acts of reconciliation, and to ask where they are still needed. As an example, I think of a remarkable story of an RAF man, Tom Tate, who died in 2016. Tom had bailed out during a bombing raid in 1945 landing in the German village of Huchenfold, north of Pforzeim. The month before Pforzheim had been destroyed in a similar RAF raid killing 18,000 people. Revenge was in the air, and so Tom and his fellow captured crew were dragged to a nearby cemetery to be executed by teenagers in the local Hitler Youth. Tom and one other crew member escaped, but the other five did not. Tom was later recaptured by German soldiers and taken to a POW camp. And even then a miracle was beginning: one of his guards handed him a pair of boots donated by a widow from Huchenfold who had heard about the lynching of his fellow airmen and who wanted to show remorse. After the war Tom was filled with bitterness but 50 years later he stumbled across a magazine article called “The Village that asked Forgiveness” relating how Huchenfold’s pastor had erected a memorial plaque to the five murdered British airmen on which was written the words “Father forgive”. Tom, with some trepidation, decided to go to Huchenfold, and the following words are his: “It was clear I had become a symbol of reconciliation. I was greeted by so many people, all of whom wanted to shake my hand. I’ve never been hugged by so many ladies in all my life! I also met Emilie, the woman who in 1945 had sent me the boots. Guilt had hung over the village for years, but by going there it somehow changed things for them. I was so welcomed, and so well looked after, that suddenly I realised I’d made a mistake. I wish that I’d gone to Germany earlier to relieve these people of their guilt. When someone comes with arms open to embrace you, you can’t feel enmity any more. The act of friendship invites forgiveness.”

Armistice Day could be, then, not just a day of sad remembrance, but a day to focus on celebratory and miraculous hope, and where that is still needed. Our reading from Mark sees Jesus proclaiming “the good news of God…”. The expression “good news” is, in fact, the technical one for the announcement brought from a battlefield that the battle has ended. The battle is over, Jesus is saying. Repent and believe: put down your weapons, take courage and come and follow me: there’s a new kingdom coming and you’re part of it. Amen.

baptism

Baptism and a New Way of Seeing

Baptism Sermon – Mark 9.38-end, Psalm 124

“Come to Church” they said “it will be fine.. it’s a baptism! they don’t talk about all the scary stuff any more.. it’s all luvvey-duvvey now. None of the gratuitous violence or random maiming… it’s all fine and fluffy”….. er… well . .. (whoops!)

We are here on this wonderful joyful day, and then our reading gives us this?£&%@!
As Richard said a few weeks ago… the Lectionary is set for the whole church … a way of working through major themes in the bible over a three year cycle… we don’t get to decide.

But actually if we realise that Jesus is using a metaphor, creating the most vivid images to make a dramatic point.. we will see that there is something in this reading which is pertinent to our baptismal family today, and indeed to all of us….

* I want to introduce you to an OT Hebrew word; Anawim, עָנָו
‘Anaw’ means afflicted, humble, poor the outcast, the vulnerable – those open to exploitation……. A common usage was ‘little ones’ (Anawim, is the plural).

Who might that be? Children certainly… revealing vulnerability and innate trust; but also outcast are the homeless, the exploited, or excluded by gender or race or sexuality, the disabled, the sick, those deemed ‘unprofitable’…

* In creation season.. we might think also of the forests, the oceans, indigenous tribes, endangered species.. All interconnected parts of the marvellous kaleidoscopic wonder of creation.. all vulnerable.. all weak, all ‘little ones’, all anawim

(And maybe we see the vulnerable in ourselves too?)

So let’s explore the context of this week’s reading.. remember this is a conversation following straight on from last week’s when the disciples are embarrassing themselves as they consider who is the greatest in the kingdom, and Christine reminded us that Jesus took and held a young child, (probably a toddler),

* “you want to know who’s the greatest..?”

Dramatically illustrating the fact that the kingdom belonged to the little ones, the wide-eyed, the innocent – and not those who look for power or status…

The kingdom Jesus speaks of is truly upside down, it inverts and challenges the priorities of the world.. it is revolutionary and transformative..

We have only paused for the week… and now we are sat back down (with the popcorn and the boxset) and we press play .. “where were we up to? … ah yes Jesus holding this child…”

Aha! Still holding the child? (we can forget that detail) Ok.. so that helps us to think about what he goes on to say…
We resume with a bizarre question from John. ‘teacher’ he says (as he begins another question that suggests he hasn’t learned anything so far!!), ‘teacher we saw a man who was driving out demons in your name, and we told him to stop, because he doesn’t belong to our group.”

 

Jesus appears frustrated – he’s certainly emphatic!

And comes back immediately with three staccato ‘for’ responses; don’t stop him!

  1. for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.
  2. (for)Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 
  3. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

The exorcist didn’t have ‘true-faith’ assumes John.. or did he? He knew enough to know that Jesus was to be respected… and that his aims were not to exploit, but to heal, (we may surmise).

John seems to want a border, some definition, ‘our group’ (and maybe that’s understandable); But Jesus is pointing to openness and inclusivity of this kingdom of God… it seems to be a kingdom with very porous borders!

Jesus seems to be getting at something far deeper… the kingdom isn’t so easily defined – but is about the heart. The heart in rhythm with the heart of God, open to God. It makes space for our mistakes and errors, and allows for vulnerability and openness.. (and thank goodness for that!)

What he is saying is still relevant to the child in his arms; which may explain why he jumps straight to these next words….

42 “If anyone should cause one of these little ones to lose faith in me, it would be better for that person to have a large millstone tied around the neck and be thrown into the sea.”

Is he really connecting the street healer (‘not of our group’) to the vulnerable child?

Jesus kingdom is made explicit again, even though it remains mysterious; the vulnerable come to us in trust, they reveal the kingdom of God to us! And they require our care, love and nurture.. The forests, the earth, the air we breath.. the oppressed, the exploited, those on minimum wage or living on the streets.. and the children… All are the anawim, all ‘the little ones’ who so often are the first victims of the human desire for power and greed…

Jesus then ‘ultra-emphasises’ the injunction not to exploit… he goes fully ‘out-there’

“do anything.. cut off your limbs if need be, but don’t exploit the little ones.. “

In God’s kingdom (where the poor are lifted high).. there is nothing worse than exploiting the vulnerable. Instead… we are to love, to care, to treasure and honour…

 

Which brings us to today’s happy occasion and what baptism means…

This morning our family are here for baptism… a sacrament of new life in the church and in God…

The children lead the way in this kingdom.. we are reminded that it is the wide-eyed, awe-struck, wonder and playfulness which is its mark.

By emphasising the distinctive—salt-like—flavour of this story—by holding the child to make his point so clearly.. Jesus story is resisting a world concerned with power, conquest and domination.

Baptism is saying something similar too. When we baptise these children in a few moments they begin a new life and participate in this different story; one which embraces vulnerability and compassion; forgiveness and new beginnings every day.

It’s a story which stands with the anawim, the little ones.
It’s a story that says that life is a precious gift to be treasured and shared.
It’s a story, which cares about community, the environment, justice,
It’s a story of imagination and creativity;

This is a story of hope. The story of the church. This is God’s story.

Which means we all face a choice…

* 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; passing through waters of new birth, receiving a light, being anointed, it is like we are saying God has changed their story, the signs tell us that the change has already taken place. These children just need time, (we all need time), to face the full reality and responsibility of that, (Maybe that’s why we do church – to practise these stories of hope?)
The sacrament says that they are more than simply invited into the story of God’s hope and endless love; they’re already participating!

So baptism isn’t just about this family; it’s for the whole church. It reminds us of our own baptism, and that in this moment the love of G-d calls us all to live with open arms; to repent and turn away from the story of fear and death; to turn instead to delight and wonder—to savour and give thanks for this amazing gift of life, like these children’s lives.

And as we delight in this baptism life, this different story, we make room for others, the anawim, ‘the little ones’ to share that life too, to break down the walls that divide us, to live the story of welcome, love and compassion. It’s God’s revolutionary story; and it begins today!

 

GS Collins

 

 

'Child' - by Jennifer Paliga and Kimberly Mcintosh

Upside Down Wisdom

Mark 9.30-37, Proverbs 31.10-end

Our readings today continue the theme started last week about God’s wisdom, a wisdom, as Richard said last week, that turns conventional wisdom on its head.  It’s an upside downness that we saw Jesus trying to put across to his disciples on the road to Jerusalem where he would face execution, instead of what they probably hoped would be a kind of victory parade.  This week they are still on the way to Jerusalem and Jesus is talking about his impending death a second time and the disciples are still missing the point.  And because the point is so important we have several Sundays to enable us, Jesus’ disciples today, to get it.

I spend a certain amount of time with very young children.  If you are of crawling or toddling age you spend your days at ground level with adults towering above you.  There are various ways of attracting the attention of an adult and one I find especially touching is when a child points to the ground, indicating that they want you to sit down there with them.  They know that once you are down on the ground they will have your attention.  You are on their level.  Play might be possible.  They can show you things.  Sitting down can enable attention.

There’s sitting down going on in our gospel reading.  Jesus and the disciples (a larger number than the 12) have been on the road, but now the twelve and Jesus enter a house and it’s a house with children.  Jesus has picked up that following his telling them for a second time about his impending death there has been animated conversation about something on the road.  He learns that it was about which of them would be lead people in the great Jesus project.  So, he sits down and asks the 12 to gather round.

Mark specifically says that he sits down.  It seems an insignificant detail but it’s Mark’s way of highlighting that what Jesus is about to say is important.  Jewish rabbis sat to teach, with their disciples gathered round them on the ground.  Jesus sits.  We’re about to get some teaching.  We need to pay attention.  Then Jesus does something very upside down; he draws a child into the group.  The child is standing.  The disciples are on the ground looking up at Jesus and now also at the child.  They are looking up at a child rather than down (the opposite of how it usually is with us adults).  Jesus deliberately changes their perspective by this physical movement.  The child has something to teach them and Jesus tells them what it is and then underlines the point by blessing the child.

As usual we have two readings from the bible.  If we were to give each a title, the first reading might be headed ‘the Good Wife’ and the second, our gospel reading, ‘The Good Disciple’.  The book of Proverbs is one of the wisdom books in the bible, offering practical insights on how to live a good life.  We had this morning’s reading at my Mum’s funeral.  The poem speaks of a woman who is very capable in managing her household and her family.  That was my Mum.  I don’t think it’s an accident that both models of wisdom this week are people of lowly standing in the ancient world – a woman and a child.  It’s upside down again.

There is a detailed description of the good wife and it all makes sense.  What about the good disciple?  Apparently a good disciple is one who is last of all, servant of all and looks up to children.  Do we want toddlers ruling the world?  Well, do we?!  This is why we have several Sundays to get our heads around this teaching.

There are a number of reasons why children might offer a model for good discipleship – wonder, trust, hope, playfulness…However, here the point seems to be about their lowly status, a status linked with the similar status of a servant/slave.  There is something important about being at the bottom of the pile, being close to the ground. Jesus is using what you might call shock tactics to get a point across – getting us to see something differently, challenging conventional wisdom.  In John’s gospel he does this by washing his disciples’ feet so that they are looking down on him rather than up at him.  Their rabbi is their servant.  Here he does it by standing a child next to him so that they have to look up at the child as well as him.  Suddenly a child is more important than them.

In his biography of Pope Francis Paul Vallely describes how early on in his papacy he was flying from Rome on a papal visit.  When travelling he carries a small, black rather old case with him.  Before boarding the plane he reached for this case and couldn’t find it.  One of his aides explained that a member of staff had carried it on to the plane where it was waiting for the Holy Father.  ‘No’, he said, ‘I want to carry it on to the plane myself like any other passenger’.  They had to retrieve it from the plane so he could do this.  The pope carrying his own case!  It’s like the pope living in an apartment rather than the papal palace, or the pope inviting people living on the streets to dinner with him.  These are shock tactics, getting us to enter a different paradigm, one where the first are last, the last first etc.

So, what is it about children and servants?  There’s just one word I want to consider – obedience.  Children and servants are under orders.  They have to do what others tell them.  In a recent tv programme about Princess Margaret her former chauffeur, Mr Griffin, reminisced about his time with her.  What he seemed to remember were instructions.  After all, he was a royal servant.  ‘Griffin, drive to Windsor today’.  ‘We’ll take the Ford Prefect, not the Rolls today, Griffin’, ‘Burn those letters, Griffin’, and so on.  While Mr Griffin was on the job he was under orders.

Jesus describes himself as a servant.  (The Son of Man came to serve Mk 10.45).  He is one under orders.  He wants his disciples, us, to be like him, to be those under orders.  There is a simplicity, a freedom, a clarity about being under God’s orders.  We see that simplicity in Jesus’ repeating at intervals to these disciples that he is going to Jerusalem whether or not they think it’s a good idea.  He’s obedient to his calling.  He’s under orders.  Immediately before the conversation reported in today’s gospel he’s been up on a mountain where an encounter with Moses and Elijah confirms his sense that his exodus, his departure, his death, lies ahead and he is to meet it.  So he moves towards Jerusalem with that assurance.

Being under orders is not the same as someone taking control of our lives.  Princess Margaret couldn’t do that with Griffin.  God doesn’t do that with us.  He is not inviting us to become his robots.  He doesn’t manipulate us.  We can see Jesus wrestling with his orders in Gethsemane; he was free to choose.  He wasn’t God’s puppet.

‘But how do I know if what I am doing, if this choice I am making is following God’s orders?’  I can hear someone asking.  ‘Perhaps I’m on the wrong path!’  The most basic thing God asks of us is that we express a desire to be under his orders.  We will not necessarily know if we’re on the right path.  There may not even be a right path in the terms we are thinking of.  But in expressing our desire to be following God we are already on the way and here in today’s gospel Mark offers a picture of how we might do that.  He gives a picture of the Good Disciple.  Jesus sits, he looks at the 12, and now at us, and, gently pointing to the ground, invites us to sit there, to give him our attention and to listen to him.  As we listen we absorb this new upside down wisdom that can seem like folly and over time the choices we make and the decisions we take are shaped by it.  It can be a daily practice for us; sitting, looking up at Christ and listening, demonstrating our desire to be under his orders.  Try it!

 

Featured Image: ‘Child’ – by Jennifer Paliga and Kimberly Mcintosh

series-r

The Wisdom of Jesus

16th September 2018, Creation 3

Proverbs 1:20-23, Mark 8:27-end

 

The lectionary – and this is important stuff, so listen up – the lectionary is a book with readings in from the bible for every day of the year. All Anglican and RC churches use this, and some other churches do as well, and it’s been going for hundreds of years. Much thought and prayer has gone in to which readings are read when, and what readings from OT, Gospel, Epistles and Psalms go together. This is exciting stuff. So when I read today’s readings, OT and Gospel, I read with expectancy and hope and I was not disappointed when the penny dropped. Are you ready?

‘Wisdom cries out in the street; in the square she raises her voice…how long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’ (Prov 1:20,23) Wisdom is a great theme in the bible, especially in the OT and it’s all about living well. How to live with your neighbour, your husband or wife, how to bring up your children, how to behave with the king, with God. How to conduct your business, how to give a good answer. Very practical stuff. King Solomon asked God for wisdom above everything else, when God asked him what he wanted most (1 Kings 3:3-14), wisdom to govern his people. When we ask the question, who is the greatest wisdom teacher in the bible, every Sunday School child knows the answer, it’s Jesus. And he is. Much of his teaching, if not all of it, is wisdom teaching – how to live your life well. Turn the other cheek, love your neighbour as yourself, give and it will be given to you and so on. So let’s look at the passage paired with the OT reading from Proverbs about wisdom crying out in the street and see what wisdom Jesus shares with us today. Here it is: ‘Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?’ (Mark 8:34-37). Here we have perhaps the most fundamental wisdom advice from Jesus, placed deliberately as it is at the exact centre of the gospel of Mark. Lose yourself. Deny yourself. Take up your cross. And if we’re honest, this doesn’t sound good. It does not make us say, ‘Wise advice, Jesus. Thanks for the tip!’ In fact, we are tempted to ignore it. But those guys who made the lectionary, they put it here so we can’t miss it, and plugged it in to wisdom calling out in the street. Mark put it in the centre of his gospel. You want wisdom? You want to be wise? You want to live your life well? Then listen to this…

And yet we can’t ignore this. How then can we understand it? For these words of Jesus call us to live our lives upside down, to do the exact opposite of much prevailing wisdom, which is, to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. To have as much fun as possible, to get as much stuff as possible, because life is awfully short. The big point here is that this wisdom, the wisdom that says that those who lose their life will save it, was precisely the wisdom with which Jesus lived his own life. You might say that these few verses were a summary of Jesus’ life, because that is exactly what his life looked life. The pattern of Jesus’ life, of the last three years of his public ministry that is, was one of losing himself for the sake of the good news, for the sake of the poor, the sick, the indifferent and the wrong-headed. And he literally lost his life because of the way he lived his life, the victim of betrayal, hypocrisy, fear and injustice. But look how it turned out. Loss of life led to resurrection, to the salvaging of that life, which is salvation. Listen to the words again: ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life…for the sake of the gospel will save it.’. And the funny thing here is that Jesus’ life didn’t look joyless or empty, the kind of life that we might imagine goes along with losing yourself, with self-denial. In fact, he lived his life to the full, with close friends, surprising meals in rich people’s houses, the person you wanted most at your party. But now look, at this point in the gospel, what do we find? Peter’s confession of who Jesus was: ‘You are the Christ!’ (v.29) followed by Jesus’ announcement that he would be rejected, would suffer and die (v.31). So Jesus was looking straight at what lay before him: the cross. So what was hitting him here was the full weight of the meaning of loss of life, making his words difficult and dark, but no less true.

I am struck by some words of Jesus which have a parallel with this, but they feel much lighter, while actually making the same invitation. ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:28-30). Here are two sides of the same coin. Taking Jesus’ yoke, being paired with him, taking our cue from him is of course the same as denying yourself, of losing your life. These words are much more comforting, of course. But if we can stand back and look at the bigger picture, we can see that they carry the same message.

So what do we do? How do we live this life? And suddenly we are at the very heart of what it means to be Christians. Does it mean, must try harder? That always works well. Do we think of things we like and then stop doing them, to deny ourselves? Is it a sort of perpetual season of Lent? Do we throw ourselves into good works, perhaps even things we don’t even really like, because the more it hurts the better it is? These words have sometimes been interpreted like this. But this way of life isn’t something we simply ‘do’, we simply ‘bolt on’ and add to our lives to make them more difficult. The result of that will probably be joylessness, rigidity, judgmentalism and hypocrisy.

I’m hoping to convey adequately what I want to say now. Our ego, the bit of us that is us, will automatically resist the message of self-denial, of losing oneself. It is scary, panicky. We can only begin to do this when our ego gets punctured, when somehow our defences get down, if we will let it. I mean when we realise, in a deep way that we are not in control, and we sort of ‘let go’. This is something which can happen to all of us, if we let it. There are two big things that do this to us. The first is love. Big love. Falling in love. Many of us, though not all, will have had the experience of falling in love. It’s interesting that we talk about ‘falling’ because that is exactly what it feels like. Our defences aren’t just down, they fall down and our heart enlarges to encompass the one we love. Richard Rohr calls this falling upward. At that moment we will literally do anything for the other. Self-denial and losing myself will seem like the easiest thing in the world. Now, that sense of love may stay with us, it may not. I’m just saying that that is what I am talking about when I say that our ego can get punctured. The second thing that can do this is, unfortunately, suffering. This is much darker of course, but suffering, illness, loss, bereavement, failure, catastrophe all puncture the ego and suddenly what seemed important no longer does so. At that moment, we may see what is really important, and our minds and hearts will focus. Other things also can cut through to our soul and they can almost feel like we have been ambushed. Have you ever read a poem, listened to music, watched a film, sang a song and suddenly you well up, you can’t go on, something has gripped you? There it is. Ambushed.

These moments when our souls are bare are when God can slip in. We actually need this to happen. It will feel like love. And you know what? It is love. A young teenager at Taizé a couple of weeks ago told me how during the time of prayer, while singing, she had come to know how God is love. I was sitting near her at the time, I think I actually saw it happen. It was clearly a deeply meaningful and powerful moment for her and my guess is that it will stay with her. I actually received Christ into my life at around the same time as I had my first experience of falling in love at the age of 16. On the other hand, I can so clearly remember kneeling in a church after the death of my mother, devastated, all defences down, and almost never has the presence of God felt more real.

I’ve got a bit leery of the word ‘faith’ because it’s so often misused and it sometimes carries the sense of something you have to sort of work up. Trust is a much better word because it’s relational. But my favourite word is actually ‘belief’. The conventional meaning of the word is a sort of rational, mind-based activity. But the word belief or believe actually comes from the German word, ‘liebe’ which means love. So the word ‘believe’ really means ‘belove’. And truly, the older I get, the more my faith, my trust, my belief comes to feel more and more, like love. Think now about someone that you trust, someone you have faith is. Now ask the question of yourself, how does trust feel? I think it feels like love. If you really trust someone, you love them. These things, faith, trust, belief, love, are so close together if we can only see it. You may like to try this when you say the creed: instead of saying, ‘I believe in God the Father…’ what about saying, ‘I belove God the Father…’ Why am I saying all this? Because we can only really do this thing, this self-denial, this loss of life that actually leads to finding life, from a place of love. We will live it more from our hearts than our minds. That was Jesus’ secret of course. That’s why, when asked what was the greatest commandment, he answered it is to ‘love God and love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:28-34), quoting the OT. The wisdom of Jesus, the advice to lose out lives, to deny ourselves needs to take root in our hearts, then our minds will tell us what to do with it.

Richard Croft

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Un-Clean-pic

Un/clean – dreaming beyond the borders which kill.

Mark 7:1-8
Song of Songs 2:8-13

 

Sermon – 2 September 2018. 1st Sunday of Creation

On 21 February 2012, five members of the group Pussy Riot staged a performance in the sanctuary of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Their actions were stopped by church security officials. By evening, they had turned it into a music video entitled “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!”. The women said their protest was directed at the Orthodox Church leader’s support for Putin during his election campaign. They were subsequently arrested and given harsh prison sentences.

Pussy Riot are ‘trouble-makers’; Resisting the collusion of power and religion in Russia.. standing up for the rights of the outsider, minorities, women, gay people, satirists, artists, radical thinkers, dissenters … naming the oppression of wealth, exclusion and power..

But these activists are the outsiders themselves.. provocative, confrontational, prepared to suffer.. They are the real deal.. flawed of course.. but shining a light in dark places. They performed at Greenbelt last week, and excited Greenbelter’s t-shirts read ‘We are all Pussy Riot’. This subversion is inclusive.. invitational .. we can all be part of the resistance..

The reading we have today ties up with this attitude by resisting the oppression of power, this time religious power. Jesus is asking about ‘the heart’ the center of our being.. the psyche or ‘soul’. He is asking profound questions about how we live in the world, how we receive the gift of God and how we live with others.. He calls us to recognise the corrosion of the human heart, of all hearts; and God’s invitation to see the world differently.

But for a moment let’s be fair to the Pharisees… they Pharisaical tradition stems from the very origins of the Hebrew tradition, the book of Exodus; before the giving of the law, God tells the people of Israel that they are to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” in the midst of the nations around them (Exodus 19:6).

The tradition for any Priest was to wash their hands before any sacred ritual…

This then became the norm for everyday ritual.. such as eating, because what they wanted to affirm was that all human activity has a sacred element to it… eating, in itself, was sacred.

This is good.. we might agree; it affirms the gift – and goodness – of all things.

The tradition said that the call of G-d is a gift.. And that gift deserves recognition and honour! They called it the Torah, the Law.. and to them it was the most beautiful gift.. it was G-d (Yahweh) speaking to them.

Its interesting that even in the story the small detail that the disciples didn’t ritually wash – it was not, the case that ‘all the Jews’ practiced this…(despite Mark’s generalization),  I don’t think the disciples would have changed a life-time practice to make a point – that’s not happening here. It clearly isn’t a common practice for these ‘rough Galileans’, and the Pharisees pick up on it as a sign of weakness – a way to attack Jesus.

It’s often very easy to knock the Pharisees as self-important and heart-less. But it may be fairer to say that they were – in faith, hope and yes, delight – following the traditions of their ancestors…

But we can remember too that the writer of Mark is weaving a story together… and these Pharisees (‘of Jerusalem’ specifically) will soon have a pivotal role in the death of Jesus.. Mark’s gospel hurtles forward at breathless pace.. and here is a hint of ‘foreshadowing’ if ever we saw it! (a hint in a story about what’s to come later on).

But to the point.. well points… (there are many!)

Jesus is speaking to three groups; the Pharisees, the gathered crowds, and to his disciples.. and they all hear in different ways, (and of course – in Mark – the disciples seem to understand the least, and so require further explanation). Jesus is offering a corrective.. and a challenge. He is calling the listeners to return to the origin of this washing ritual, and using this as a method of approaching the whole of the law.. he is calling them back to their first love… to Yahweh.

Funny that we have the beautiful, rich and poetic love song, the song of songs, as our OT reading today. ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away’, that same evocative, almost romantic yearning.

We can hear his deeper question; “why are you doing this? For whom? For yourselves, for others, for God?”

It’s not about what you do.. but about who you are in response to G-d. It’s about how you respond to the endlessly subversive, challenging and affirming voice that can be found in the ‘unclean’ as much as the clean…

And this really brings us to the challenge for us all. Who, or what, do we consider to be unclean today.. what is outside of your boundaries? What can we learn from those outside of the borders?

Jesus challenge calls us all out.. to understand, to listen (and listen again) and to love…

Of course there will always remains things which are truly ‘unclean’; murder, rape, abuse, exploitation of people and planet.. These contravene justice.. they break down relationship and stand in resistance to the G-d whose very being is relationship… and we must call those things out, like Pussy Riot’s fabulous risk-taking.

But these are not what we – or Jesus – was talking about here; he’s getting at our own self-made ideas of who’s in and who’s out, morals based on traditions, prejudice and power.

But the kingdom the already/not yet kingdom is there within us all.. its call is fully inclusive.. Will you respond to God’s call of endless, generous love.. will you ‘arise my love’?

Yesterday we attended Reading Pride!.. a gaudy, brash, bright positive party – of love and inclusion.. but more that simply a party… a movement which affirms the diversity, the colour and complexity of humanity and which has emerged from the oppressed ‘outsider’.

Those boundaries are dangerous, violent. It’s often when sons, daughters, friends and relatives enter this ‘outside’ world that we realise that we are united by our humanity, and yet all different; when borders break down; and we see that the love of God is endlessly giving.

For LGBTQI+ people there is a dark history of prejudice, exclusion, oppression, hatred and murder and perpetrated by those who ‘guard the border’ of in and out.

And sadly that includes the church too.

Pride! Reminds us that the outsider might also include the refugee, the disabled, the mentally unwell, the lonely, differing ethnicities, the homeless… (who decides who is in and who’s out, what is ‘clean or unclean’?). And on the 1st Sunday of Creation Season that also makes us think of the exploited earth.

Creation Season tells us of the beauty and gift of difference. It is precisely these voices from the margins, from the outside which have, and still can, help the church when it listens.. to understand and to grow – to return to its first love. The love of G-d, the love of people; no buts, no ifs. just love; simple, calling, ‘arise, arise’.

The church is facing huge challenges  right now.. (declining numbers are not really the problem at all).. but abuse, irrelevance, upholding borders, siding with power (Christendom), excluding, judging, colluding with power has revealed it very much mis-using power – and people see through that!

Yet it could be so different – we stand at a crossroads.. God calls all people to live in a different reality.. one that comes from the heart.. that challenges the heart; that nudges, and provokes and provokes again, (how do we love the oppressor?).. the challenge is always there, and within the challenge – the seeds of hope.

The lover of ‘the greatest song’ is right.. The springtime is always upon us; the kingdom of God is always calling – inviting us to savor a different reality..

Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”

Gary S Collins

Silence

‘Silence! Shut up!’

2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-end

Almost exactly 3 years ago, I preached here on this passage. These verses, and the picture ‘Be calm’ by Sieger Köder spoke very much to me at a particular time of uncertainty in my life, when it felt like the waves would overcome both Rosemary and me. The story and the picture – and by extension, Christ Himself – were telling me to trust, not to be afraid to call out for help, and to know that even if I can’t control events, I know someone who can. That picture was – and is – a source of strength to me capturing, as it does, both a storm and the presence of Christ. Today, this story has a slightly different message for me and it seems to fit quite well with the experience that many had in the week of guided prayer so I’ll go ahead and share it, even though you may think I’m being a bit free and easy with the text.

The Sea of Galilee, where the events recorded here took place, is a place where a wild storm can really blow up quickly. Today the car parks on the western shore have notices warning drivers of what can happen in high winds: your car can be completely swamped. So even for experienced fishermen like Peter and his friends, it was terrifying to be in the middle of that storm – look at the terror on the faces in the picture and try to imagine what it was like. Perhaps these are your last few seconds of life…and Jesus is comfortably ‘asleep on a cushion in the stern’. The story goes on: “They woke him up. ‘Teacher!’ they said to him, ‘We’re going to drown! Don’t you care?’ He got up, scolded the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Silence! Shut up!’ The wind died, and there was a flat calm.” As I read this again, I begin to wonder if one of the reasons that Jesus spoke to the storm was because he knew it would obey him! I don’t really think there was any danger of that boat sinking with Jesus in it, asleep though he was. Indeed, Jesus’ rebuke to the disciples, “Why are you scared? Don’t you believe yet?” seems to underline that. I wonder if for a split second, Jesus thought, ‘Shall I tell THEM to shut up? No – they won’t do it! So I’ll tell the storm instead.’ What I am hearing as I respond to this story is Jesus saying to me, ‘Silence! Shut up!’.  And indeed, the disciples heard those words – perhaps overheard is a better word – and remembered them, passed them on or we wouldn’t have them now. And I wonder whether they didn’t begin to think that perhaps it was as much a message for them as it was for the wind and the waves.

I so appreciated Mark’s sermon last week, talking as he did about the experience of ‘throwing away’ time in prayer. That spending half an hour a day during that week just in prayer looks for all the world like a waste of time, not achieving anything. It was a lovely moment when he invited half a dozen of the week’s participants to share what the week had meant to them with the people sitting around them. The first thing that the person I went to be with shared was this, what an impression silence made to her. How, in the middle of a busy life, being silent was a powerful experience, one that brought her closer to God. A couple of weeks ago I went walking with an old friend and I tried to tell him about the week of guided prayer. When I told him that each of the participants would be spending half an hour a day in prayer, he said, ‘So does that mean they’re like, praying for every country in the world?’ He had this very one-dimensional view of prayer, that it’s about a sort of shopping-list. And many of us may have a similar view of prayer, I certainly have had for years. It’s not wrong, it’s just that there’s more to it. Sure, prayer can be about asking God for things. And about speaking with God, a conversation. But it’s also about shutting up, about being silent, about resting in the presence of God, about stilling the storm within, about listening.

It is gradually becoming my own experience. Some of you know that at present, I am following the Ignatian spiritual exercises and I see a spiritual director every week and have been since October. It’s one of the privileges of being retired that I can find space for the daily prayer times without too much difficulty. In the first couple of weeks, the only thing I was required to do was to shut up and be silent for at least 20 minutes a day. To simply be aware of the moment, to look out of the window and observe what was happening in the garden. To relax. I found that very difficult. I kept thinking of all the things I had to do. I kept wanting to look at the clock. After a few days I set a timer on my phone and took the clock out of the room (I don’t have a watch). Gradually, the silence became easier to drop into and the busy thoughts in my mind – almost a storm, you might say – less demanding and strident. I began to enjoy the time. And here’s the thing. When we are silent, when we are not ‘doing’ anything, not achieving, not proving ourselves, not fixing, not rescuing, not planning out the day, not telling God what he should be doing, when we just are, we will find that what is left, is God. It’s like, if you only look at the wind and the waves, you forget who is in the boat with you. If we are so pre-occupied with our thoughts, out activities, our stuff, our worries, we will not be conscious of the presence of God. We will miss him. God does not force himself on us, he is not like a noisy neighbour, hammering on the door. He is easily missed. And yet he is present and can be found. In a very real sense, we don’t have to do anything at all because God is present everywhere and all of the time. The only difference is this: are we conscious of his presence or not?

Every week we gather in church here and we receive the presence of God in case we forget, in two particular ways. The first is as we hear and participate in what is called the ‘liturgy of the word’ – that is, specifically the reading of scripture and especially the gospel, which is why it is given such ceremonial importance. The second is, of course, the holy communion, the eucharist. In that, the presence of Christ takes physical contours in the bread and the wine which we take into our bodies. We receive both the word and the bread and wine. The only requirement is that we are present. And silent, in order to listen.

To be practical for a moment, I want to speak about intention. Mark picked up this theme last week. Silence, and prayer, don’t really just happen. We have to make space and I know this is a real issue for many of us. Usually there is a time and a space which we can give to silence and prayer, but we will have to think about it and put a fence around it, or it just won’t happen. It may be early in the morning, or late at night if you’re a night owl, in a spare room in the house, in a specific chair or on the train if you’re a regular commuter. But to heed that word, ‘Silence!’ where we are nothing except ourselves before God is to enter a different dimension of relationship to Him.

Let me share with you a few verses from the Psalms. This was the first piece of scripture I was given to meditate on after I had got used to being silent. ‘Oh God, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.’ (Psalm 139) When we read these words and allow them to soak in to our quietened minds and hearts they will touch us deeply. We may read these words – we may know them! – but I challenge you to take them into a silent place and to covet them, to treasure them. They are true! They express perhaps the most important thing there is to know. The words of full of images – searching, sitting, standing, lying down, my path, my tongue, His hand laid on me. Let those images take shape in you and know that God is closer to you than you are to yourself.

We have travelled a long way from the story of the disciples out on a boat on the Sea of Galilee with Jesus asleep on a cushion in the back, when a storm blows up and they fear for their lives. We will all have storms in our lives – there is no escaping. Some will come just because ‘shit happens’ – illness, bereavement, failure, relationship breakdown, financial worries. There may be more specific storms to do with our following of Jesus – misunderstanding, prejudice, rejection. Of course, we will pray that Jesus will still the storm but we can also hear those words, ‘Silence! Shut up!’ addressed to us and find that silent place where we can consciously experience and know the presence of God from whom we cannot escape. And as a wise person said to me years ago, ‘God even uses shit!’

Let me end with a few words from another Psalm, Psalm 46. We will hear the theme of wind and waves once again: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult…There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God…Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth’ (vv. 1-4,10)

 

Richard Croft

dzn_Sunflower-Seeds-2010-by-Ai-Weiwei-5

The Kingdom of God is like this: a farmer scatters seed in a field.

Mark 4.26

At some point in human history, a simple but remarkable act of faith took place for the first time. Probably after a day of hard hunter-gathering, picking seeds from the heads of wild grasses, somebody somewhere consciously chose not to eat everything that had been gathered. Instead, someone, somewhere decided to take a few of those precious seeds and throw them away – to deliberately let them fall onto the ground. I guess they had probably seen what happened when seeds were dropped accidentally, how some of them took root and flourished; but at some point accident became intention. Someone chose to sacrifice something that would normally and very obviously enhance life with its calorific energy, and they did it in the hope that more would happen, that more life would come. That basic act of faith, repeated time and again, is what we now call agriculture.

This last week has been our first Week of Accompanied Prayer. About 20 people have chosen daily to devote half an hour to prayer and then to meet with a guide to reflect on what was happening. In addition, on three evenings almost double that number have attended workshops led by Vincent, Gary, Ali and Christine on topics of creativity and prayer, making choices, and praying with our bodies. In all, about half of this congregation have been involved in the Week in some way.

The Kingdom of God is like this: a farmer scatters seed….

During the week, I’ve found myself captivated by the simple image of a hand throwing away seed‑broadcasting‑letting it go. A gesture, on the surface, indistinguishable from throwing away something precious. And in a way, this week, that’s exactly what half of this congregation, in some form, have chosen to do: half of you have chosen to throw away like precious seeds upon the ground, a part of your life: you have given your time to prayer. Some an evening, some three evenings, some a whole week.

Prayer, it seems to me, is like the farmer casting seeds upon the earth. Fundamentally it involves a choice to let go: to let go of using a portion of time for other apparently more productive, more obviously useful activities; to let go of business and the status, security and importance that can come with productive time; and instead simply to make space to listen‑not just to talk‑but to sit, rest, and wait with God: in silence, in breath, in awareness of the body, in moulding clay, in playing with poetry, in scripture: in some way just wasting time, foolishly casting it away, like seeds upon the earth.

What letting go looks like‑the way you do your prayerful listening, your resting with God‑differs from person to person. As an introvert who prefers stillness, here’s what letting go looks like in sculptural form for me. But I mentioned a few weeks back, I know someone else for whom prayerful letting go looks like *this (dancing).

The Kingdom of God is like this: a farmer scatters seed in a field.

Notice the end of the sentence: in a field.

Sowing crops is not just about throwing seeds away willy-nilly; it is a letting go with intention. The seeds are not just dropped by the side of the road, or among the bushes–though in fact the broadcast technique will result in some being lost entirely. But, on the whole the farmer casts away those precious seeds deliberately, in a space that has been cleared, that is not busy and cluttered with other things. And he or she does it again and again, it becomes a routine. In fact, I dare to imagine that over time the farmer becomes more confident: flings those precious seeds wider and wider, trusting that something good will happen.

Could prayer be like this, throwing away time with God each day, again and again, in hope of being met, and doing it with intention? The word ‘intention’ was one we alighted on together on Tuesday‑that it is important that when we enter prayer we do it wanting something. Ali picked this intentionality up in her workshop on Wednesday as she spoke about desire. We are allowed, no: encouraged to cast our time upon God with hope, with desire, with aims for what we believe will be an enriched life, just as the farmer casts the seeds upon the field in the hope of a rich crop.

This, then, is how I would characterise prayer: letting go with intention. Like throwing away seed deliberately.

What happens when we find a way to pray that fits us, that fits our routines, our personalities and habits, that includes both waiting and hoping, both listening and desiring?

The Kingdom of God is like this: a farmer scatters seed in a field. He sleeps at night, is up and about during the day, and all the while the seeds are sprouting and growing, and he does not know how it happens.

When some of us met on Friday to review our week, several people expressed in surprise that this letting go, this waiting, this time spent listening, turned out not to be a waste after all. Indeed, for a few, in a way that was as inexplicable to them as the sprouting of the seed to the farmer, prayer became a fertile space.

Well, sometimes, the yield is astonishingly rich; and sometimes it is not; sometimes we hear God clearly and the world makes sense to us; and sometime we don’t and it doesn’t; most often, prayer is just satisfactory: enough for the day, a daily portion of wheat for daily bread. And sometimes prayer is disappointing, like a patchy harvest.

The merit of having a prayer-guide, a spiritual director, someone one speaks to about prayer, is then like one farmer calling to another for advice: someone who has been in these parts a bit longer, who might have some tips on when and where to sow, how to irrigate better, what to do with weeds that get in the way… And even if one does not confide in a guide, an apparent experience of fruitlessness is not a reason to give up. On the contrary, its the place to start afresh with question about desire–what do I want of God? Why? What do I really need? What might God want to give me?

Prayer, like scattering seed in the field, is worth doing regularly–worth doing even when there is no guarantee of what one will get.

This then, to my mind, is prayer: casting away a part of our lives into the field of God, hoping, desiring for something good to grow: for fruitful lives.

And now, I shall let go with intention the rest of this sermon. For I want to cast away the next few minutes and invite those who’ve participated in the week with a guide to share the fruits of their own experiences on what praying has been like. I tipped them off on Friday at our final meeting, and said I’d invite those who wished to share to stand up and then spread out among the rest of the congregation to find a group to share…

The Kingdom of God is like this: a farmer scatters seed in a field. The Kingdom of God is like this…

Mark Laynesmith

 

 

Image courtesy of https://www.dezeen.com/2010/10/11/sunflower-seeds-2010-by-ai-weiwei/

Malcolm Harland, 2018

Easter Sunday – The Tale of Three Unfinished Tales

A Talk for Family Communion, Mark 16.

 

“The Garden looks so beautiful this morning…”

We join this morning with the woman making their way towards the tomb of Jesus…. Their hearts, we presume, are heavy..

The women are strong.. they have seen a lot of life – and death. They are not afraid of death, they know what they must do.. but not this death.. this one is all wrong.. this is their friend, teacher… the one who was supposed to bring liberation.. to usher in the reign of God.

Not to be killed like a common criminal a political subversive.

The Women make their way to the tomb, but again, something is wrong… the stone has been turned away… and the tomb .. is empty… what has happened?

I’ve been reminded about three stories this week;

The first, Cinderella… about a young girl living like a slave with her step family, treat truly awfully by her stepsisters.

But then a royal Ball is held in the Prince’s palace, and all the single women of the town are invited..

However, Cinderella is forbidden to go and is heartbroken. She meets her fairy Godmother.. all kinds of magic happens… and she goes to the ball.. and dances with the Prince – who falls head over heels in love with her..
But then the evening ends and the magic ends and Cinderella must leave before the magic ends.. so she escapes the palace, just as the magic wears off and her magical ball-gown returns to rags… and that’s the end of the story.

Isn’t it?

The second story about a young woman called Belle who finds herself locked in a ruined castle. The terrifying reality is that the castle is owned and lived in by a huge beast… and is supposedly under a dark magic spell. However the woman Belle gets to know the beast, and slowly they become friends… and that’s the end of the story.

Isn’t it?

The third story is this story today.. the women coming along to bury Jesus, but find an empty tomb. They are left speechless… they run away not knowing what to say or do.

This is an astonishing day, and a wordless day… it’s hard to know what to say about the resurrection.. If we are asked to say what it actually means.. like really… it is hard to express something which goes beyond logic, beyond nature, beyond explanation.

Maybe this is what Mark is deliberately doing here…. Why does his story end so suddenly… there is no detail at all? Scholars have scratched their heads over this for years.

I wonder, could it be that this is where we are supposed to complete the story ourselves – just like I needed people to complete the other stories.

Mark is a most gifted storyteller.. he plays with ideas, and then turns them on their head;..

Throughout Mark’s story, Jesus performs amazing miracles.. the disciples want to tell everyone – but Jesus orders them not to.

But now, the final end-it-all miracle.. and the disciples don’t tell, they don’t know what to say.. they have the opportunity, but they don’t know how to speak of it.

Isn’t this the way with something so astonishing as this day. The resurrection… if taken seriously leaves us wordless. Mark is not saying, (as so many might prefer!), “Look, here’s Jesus, it’s all ok, see he was right about everything after all, and we can easily prove it”

No, instead Mark doesn’t just ‘tell stories’, he invites people into an experience where they are shaken, shocked, amazed and sometimes confused, Mark’s story grabs us, shakes us. He is creating a story, which doesn’t end properly, because – maybe – it’s a story, which never ends. It is left to the disciples, then and now, to complete the story.. to bear witness to the hope of spring overcoming winter, hope overcoming despair, justice overcoming oppression, life overcoming death.

What that means requires a lifetime of thinking about. Maybe it’s in art, or in mothering, in science, or politics, in solidarity with the outsider, in prayer, in loving, caring and giving.. maybe in how we see the world.

And one final thing to notice in this story… the instruction they receive is to go back to Galilee..

Galilee? That’s home isn’t it? That’s where it all started. I wonder what that means – that the disciples go home to meet with Jesus.. Somewhere maybe in the heart of family, friends, home, community.. in the presence of others – is that where we find the message of resurrection becoming real? Somewhere inside of ourselves.. And what words can we give to that?

Holy Week has given us such astonishing moments.. moments which leave us literally speechless.. and in the end .. no not the end.. an interlude. .. we are met with something so unexpected, so far beyond the script.

The children have helped me to end the first two stories… on this Easter day, we are left with the challenge;

Can we tell – and tell, and tell again – the ending of this third endless story – a story of hope – divine and unexpected – that begins inside each of us, and carries the potential to turn the world upside down?

Amen

 

GS Collins 1 April 2018

 

red-palms

Palm Sunday and an unseen turn of events.

Psalm 118 | Mark 11:1-11 Palm Sunday.

Anticipation

So here we are .. Palm Sunday.. the beginning of Holy Week

This is the most vivid week of the church year. It’s why the liturgical colours go from Lent’s purple to red!

In this vivid week the human story is written on a cosmic canvas.

In this week we see Jesus embrace it all – the extremes of human experience.. the joys, the hope, friendship, excitement and love; but also betrayal, loss, silence, desperation and desolation.. self-doubt, the horror of torture and a violent death.. and a final most-unexpected surprise from beyond our imagining.

He experiences it all… God experiences it all.. These are experiences that we face in our lives too.. the extreme moments in life which can challenge us, enrich us, inspire us, push us too far, forever change us.

Maybe we can find some hope in this holy week.. could it be that these very human extremes might actually be the places where we too are closest to God.. It’s easy enough to say.. but it will take a lifetime unpacking.

Let’s get down to the surface.. down to the dusty ground outside Jerusalem.. lets imagine ourselves there so many years ago… maybe you are a disciple, (women and men), maybe an onlooker caught up in the excitement of the crowd… we can imagine in the heat of the day, rich aromas in the air and a growing crowd, a sense of excitement.. branches waving in the air.. hands raised voices singing, chanting, laughing and cheering.. We are carried along with the crowd, and hoping against hope maybe we find ourselves also thinking..

“Could this really be the one? the liberator.. a king, a messiah?

Could the ‘hosannas’ really be true, could we really be saved from our oppressions?”

But not everything was going to turn out as we expected… even now on this most joyous day something is not right with the script…

Kingship usurped… And The absurd drama of the grand victorious entrance!

Remember this is Marks Gospel.. the urgency of his writing adds to the sense of drama.. Mark knows how to write.. each new moment like an act in a play, yet running through this radical story of a suffering messiah there is a seam of subtle, understated, humour.

And here-on the first Palm Sunday- Jesus is playing the fool.. can we  see the humour?… and absurd performance art maybe? . . lets look again;

Beneath the text, what none of us could be expected to know, is a type-scene common in antiquity:
“Hail the conquering hero.”

In Hebrew tradition, which Jesus would have been familiar with, The book of First Maccabees (5:45-54) recounts such a story with a self-importance: the return of Judas Maccabeus to Israel following a triumphant massacre. In ancient Jewish literature the details vary, but the format is predictable, (we just heard it in the beautiful Psalm too); Amid cheering throngs, the military victor enters a city and offers thanksgiving at a religious shrine. This kind of tale was familiar to Mark’s audience.

But Mark twists the Maccabeus story on its head. There’s no blood on Jesus’ sword. (He doesn’t carry a sword!) Jesus rides in, not on a Champion’s Horse, but on somebody’s donkey. The crowds do not hail him as “the Son of David” (Matthew), “the King who comes in the Lord’s name” (Luke), “even the King of Israel” (John). Mark plays his trump card at the story’s end, when we expect Our Hero to do something dramatic. It’s time for the general to head for the shrine and offer sacrificial thanks to God for having slaughtered hundreds. Not in Mark!

We expect Jesus to march into the House of the Lord and do the religious thing. What we get is Jesus the tourist, looking the place over. “Well, it’s late. Let’s pack it in guys.” What would the Twelve make of that? How about the exuberant multitudes? Do they pick up their garments and leafy branches with a shrug? “well that’s not quite what we were hoping for..”

Jesus is ridiculing the image of Kingship. The anticipation of Power is subverted, and Mark is using a subtle humour to allow truth to get in; Jesus is not, and never will be, as we expect – he is not the liberator we imagined, he doesn’t follow the script, doesn’t act the way he’s supposed to. If you think you can contain him, you will get it wrong every time. The joke is on us.

Yet things get even weirder later – with a dead fig tree, and then some table-turning antics… We cannot fence Christ in.. and thank God for that. Because if we did there would be no gospel, only the stale clichés of our own religious construction. And that is the genius of Mark – not merely saying things, but actually drawing us into the experience – laughing all the way into God’s upending grace.

Jesus is changing everything – but not as we like to presume. Nothing will be as we had expected…

And here we imagine ourselves on this first Palm Sunday;- we cannot fully know the depth of what the week will bring.. the most unexpected turn of events.. the most searching of questions will confront us; by the end of the week we will be left wondering who we really are; who Jesus really is; and where our hope really lies. (Can you hear the crowds calling for their saviour Barabbas?)

Some 2000 years on, Holy Week still breaks through our comfort zones and – if we let it – asks the most searching questions.

We don’t know the future, we don’t know what will happen when we leave the church this morning. We are vulnerable, weak.. easily tempted.. that’s what makes us human. Sometimes calamities from outside our influence; bereavement, loss, illness, unemployment, family issues, problems outside of our control ….

Maybe God didn’t know either.. is that possible..? Could it be that Jesus didn’t know what was really going to happen in this week…until maybe it was all too late? Yet he experienced it all.

Holy Week reminds us that uncertainty – not certainty – is the path of faith..… it’s what we do with uncertainty, unknowing that makes the difference…

And I would suggest it is through accepting uncertainty; allowing us to be realistic about it; that we might yet find hope and solidarity.. we might find a new way of relating to the word ‘faith’..  Often wrongly construed as ‘sure and certain belief’,  but instead something far more vulnerable, experiential.

Sometime the rug is pulled from under us. Yet in uncertainty, even in our most extreme moments, voicing “God why have you forsaken me.. ” we hear the echo of Another .… we are still not alone.. It’s not necessarily a comfort, (in a simple ‘arm around us’ sense) but it is a comfort in a more real way.. Jesus speaks these words too – we are not alone!

But we are also reminded that we are not alone in the moments of delight and wonder…

Life is made of these contours, and the deep valleys help us appreciate the mountain tops even more.. delight in the stars.. in the summer breeze upon your skin, the embrace of a much-loved friend…  all of these – pain and joy – are the moments when we are most alive.. and where we catch a fleeting glimpse of God ever dancing beyond our containment.

So, where does this leave us? .. As those on that first Palm Sunday were to discover, the future is uncertain and we find ourselves daily facing the challenge of faith – our fragile response to such uncertainty. Faith forms through unknowing, and God shakes off our grand expectations anyway…

But we trust, we hope, we find comfort, we share together. We are not alone; we have friends, family, community; in all these moments.. in all the extremes… we may yet dare to say ‘God is with us, meeting us in our experience, we are truly not alone’

So wake up and face each new day – with everything that we cannot know;

wake up and face the new day; you are alive – and maybe that’s faith enough.

May God bless you in your journey through this Holy Week. Amen.

Tracey Emin at her exhibition "Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’/JMW Turner" at Turner Contemporary, Margate. 13 October 2017 - 14 January 2018. Photo: Stephen White, Turner Contemporary

‘Deny’ … the challenge of giving up the idea of a challenge.

Mark 8:31-38, Genesis 17:1-7 , 15-16

Lent is the season which is all about denial of the self and the mystery of God.

When it comes to the mystery in this challenging text I’m reminded of Mark Twain who said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
Before we begin let’s set the stage…. ‘lets talk about the Gospel of Mark’ –

Having been side-lined for a long time, more recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Mark’s gospel. What it lacks in detail it gains in intensity. Most scholars put the writing of Mark at or around 60-70 AD/CE, about the time of the Judean revolution (important!) and acknowledge it as the first of the synoptic gospels. Mark’s writing is spare, urgent, and dramatic. Its narrative pacing of ‘straightway’ and ‘immediately’ link one event to another, everyone ‘runs’, ‘shouts’, is ‘amazed’, inflaming Christ’s mission with a dazzling urgency. Mark ‘was not concerned to produce a detailed report of the proceedings but to sketch a course of events significant for the salvation of humankind’. The emphasis of Mark’s text seems to be upon action and discipleship; he makes claims upon his audience, his Jesus leaps from the page – evoking transformation.

Mark’s writing could be described as a narrative of death.. a dramatic story and unfolding drama.. heading to a final moment of destiny. Mark cleverly puts together stories which lead the reader into rising tension.. he knows where the story will end.

An inversion of the world, radical (and open to misinterpretation).

Mark’s gospel is about re-interpreting the world.. his vision is truly apocalyptic – a revelation – that God’s kingdom is coming/has come and everything can change. But can his followers grasp this… can we still grasp this today? Mark is radical, revolutionary and subversive; Mark heralds a gospel of non-violent resistance to the forces of military, economic and religious oppression that the people of Judea were experiencing. (CM)

Blindness. Three predictions. Take up your cross. Blindness

It’s worth noting that this passage is the first of three predictions about Jesus own death…  Mark is a clever writer, piecing together short anecdotes to create a compelling whole story; the three predictions are book-ended by two stories of blindness.. is this an accident or is Mark making a point about how it’s so easy to misunderstand/not-see the good news, how the shift in consciousness (a battle of cultures if you like) is so alien to what we are used to?

What makes sense to us is not what makes sense to God. Mystery.

So Jesus lets the cat out of the bag about his bleak ending, and is ‘rebuked’ (epitiman, ‘shut up’) by Peter, (‘don’t be so foolish Jesus’). In response, Jesus publicly rebukes Peter, (epitemesen ‘shut up’, usually used against demons) the argument is strong and vehement…

God’s kingdom is the inversion of the world; what makes sense to us, self-preservation etc is not the same here. The love and life of God which Jesus speaks of is liberating, risky, going beyond our comfort zones – it relocates our identity with ‘the other’, and the (absurd) logic of this is beginning to loom disturbingly in the disciples minds. Despite the fact that the crowds are following and they are seeing many signs and miracles, the kingdom of Jesus is not like other kingdoms.. the reign of God wont see Jesus enthroned as a new leader (as they might have expected)… instead he announces his own killing? Something is really wrong.. Maybe Jesus is mistaken?

 Life as self (psyche)… a shift in priorities. The other is our life. Humans. Relating.

Today’s sermon is supposed to be about ‘realistic Christianity’, yet the challenge in the next section, (as Jesus draws all his listeners in) is even more bewildering and seems far from realistic.. We are suddenly confronted with talk of giving up your life to find it… this feels like too much, you can imagine the heat rising in the back of the neck, the discomfort, ‘now we are all too deeply involved… is there still a way to get out?’

Whilst it is certainly true that many people have, (and still do today) lose their lives for the sake of the gospel.. and we may remember them in our prayers this morning. But I don’t think this is the first thing Jesus is thinking of…

‘Life’ (psyche) also means soul or self.. what we might see is that Jesus is saying we must give up our selfhood.. our self-reliance, our self-madeness, our strong exterior.. our hope of control.

And if we did dare let go – where do we find ourselves? With ‘the other’.? with other people? with God..? This is about vulnerability and realising it is not us who hold even our own lives together.. we are not islands.. with live in relation .. we become human by being together.. (this church bears witness to such a community) the Eucharist reminds us weekly that we give ourselves away – yet receive our self back as a gift.

Living beyond ourselves. Not masochism.

And as in Judea in 1st century so today there is a clash of cultures between those who perpetuate the dream of self-reliance, protectionism and closed borders – of all kinds; and those who choose to live openly, with the risk of the other and the unknown. We see this from the success-filled messages of social media to politicians who are not allowed to show any weakness etc.. Thank God for the antidote of poets and artists who reveal more subtle images of humankind.

Selfhood and Service

So let us hear this passage afresh… not an injunction to become a masochist, to invite pain or even death.. nor to think we can do things for God. Instead it is about shifting out priorities away from purely ourselves and recognising that we only become ourselves by virtue of others around us; even the stranger… it is from this vulnerable openness that our humanity properly flourishes, the human self becomes a we-self; identity found through intimacy… and it’s from that place of com/passion that all kinds of giving will occur.

The tragic shooting in Florida last week gave us the story of the gym coach Aaron Feis who ran towards the sound of gunfire to protect children and in so doing he lost his own life. He wasn’t seeking to die, he would happily have remained alive if he had the choice.. but his deep instinct was that the children’s lives were of value, and that he naturally, humanly, responded as he did. (There is much more to say of this sordid affair and the sordid response from men in power in American who are already silencing the voices of the voiceless… and yes please do read everything you want to into this!)

Jesus is reminding his followers that the gospel affects everything; upturning our understanding of politics economics education science art and people.

Faith not as construct but as gift.. beyond understanding, towards mystery.

So the kingdom of God is not contained, it defies usual logic, it shifts our priorities. Jesus could not be contained in Mark’s gospel.. and he cannot be contained today, even despite our best attempts to pin him down in theology and worship. Faith today is often neatly packaged.. “Jesus is the answer”, we may have heard, yet Mark shows over and over again that Jesus is far more the question, than the answer…

Scholar Ched Myers echoes the crowds at Golgotha; ‘If only Jesus would come down from the cross so we might believe (15:32)! Who of us’, he asks, ‘is really prepared to accept that by remaining there he shows the way to liberation, to acknowledge that in this moment [of redemptive suffering] the powers are overthrown and the kingdom [of God] is come in power and glory’ [cf. Mk. 13:26] …
Too often our religion appears to reduce this radical message to something neat and contained.. something polite and sanitised, whilst Mark is busily stirring up a revolution!

Embraced in grace. No presentation of good self, but our whole/broken self.

But that doesn’t make this inaccessible… in fact the opposite is true. The point of all this dialogue is that by ‘letting go’ of the self, our self-reliance.. and by letting go of the idea that Christianity is a task to maintain… we instead find ourselves held and loved. The illusion of distance from God becomes apparent. It is those who live openly who will live fully; and those who shore up defences who will shut down their own lives and others around them.

(Funny too that Abraham and Sarah were both deeply flawed people who, yet, still received a blessing; they allowed themselves to be open to a wild notion – though it took a lifetime to learn)

This apocalyptic good news is that God breaks into our worlds with love and grace. We don’t need to pretend.. we don’t need to present only our good self to God… we don’t need to do anything for God, we don’t need to make ourselves out to be something we’re not.. we need instead to let go of the ego, and realise – as difficult as it is – that we are wholly understood and totally loved; we are welcomed, warts and all – unmade bed and all, to feast on Christ, to share supper with him… and within that grace, (not prior to it) we may yet find ourselves – and our world – transformed with hope.

“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

Yes. It’s in this strange, terrifying world-shattering presence that we are finally disarmed, and instead find ourselves held in love, grace and a peace which surpasses all understanding. And that might be just fine!

 

Picture Credit – Tracey Emin at her exhibition “Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’/JMW Turner” at Turner Contemporary, Margate. 13 October 2017 – 14 January 2018. Photo: Stephen White, courtesy Turner Contemporary.