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St John and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, October 10th 2021, Trinity 19

 

Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

The word of God is living and active

 

This morning I would like to explore one way that we can hear God speaking with us. With you. With me. I wonder how you feel just now, hearing those words? Did your heart give a little surge? Was there a sense of yes, I want that? I would like to hear from God personally, to me, in my life? Or was there a bit of fear in there? Anxiety, apprehension? What would he say to me if I gave him the chance? Tell me off? Or was it, no, I don’t want this. If that’s the case, where does the resistance come from? Or was there a blank feeling, a sort of internal shrug – whatever? Meh? For now, just register your reaction. It is how you are, where you are now.

 

Why would God speak with me? Why would He take that trouble?  In a very real, very big way, God has already spoken and continues to speak. He spoke the Word that brought the whole of creation into being. We read in Genesis 1 that: ‘Then God said, “Let there be light, and there was light…”’ God is recorded as having spoken all through the scriptures. God spoke again to Mary, Mary whose ‘yes’ enabled God to become a human being, whom John in his gospel refers to as ‘the Word made flesh’ (John 1:14) who came and dwelt among us.

 

And yet, it’s possible to say all of that, and even agree with it, and still not know how God can speak to me. Our two readings today give a vivid picture of what that may be like. It’s frankly a bit scary. In the Hebrews passage, the first reading, we heard that ‘the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart’. The idea of the word of God being like a sharp sword was vividly illustrated in the gospel reading. A man kneels before Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Why does he do that? He’s rich, he’s young, he’s a ruler (we know this from the other accounts of the same story in Luke and Matthew). He’s probably good looking too, he has everything. He knows the commandments and keeps them. What else could he possibly want? At some level he knows it’s not enough. He knows of Jesus, perhaps he has met him before and he senses, intuits, knows that this man has what he wants, what he needs to be complete. And he wants it. For after all, ‘O God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’ (Augustine). Jesus looked at this man and, as the gospel tells us, he ‘loved him’. And tells him he must sell all he owns, give the money to the poor, and follow him. Why for heaven’s sake does he tell him that?? Does that feel a bit like a sword, cutting through the thoughts and intentions of the heart? I’m sure that wasn’t what the man expected. Jesus surely didn’t want this to needlessly cause him pain, and yet it did cause him pain. ‘When he heard this, he was shocked, and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. To understand this, we have to remember that Jesus’ attitude towards him was one of love and he spoke to him out of that love. He saw that his wealth was his security, it defined him, it was a false god, it blocked his relationship with the one, true, living God. It had to go, at a single stroke. For that man to find what he was looking for, eternal life, (which is another way of saying God, because to know God is to find eternal life (John 17:3)), the false god had to go. In order for that man to become the person that God wanted him to be – free, an inheritor of eternal life in all its fulness and joy – he had to offload what held him down. Think of the parable of the treasure hidden in a field and the man who sold everything he had to buy the field; or the pearl merchant finding the ‘pearl of great price’ and selling all he had to get it (Matthew 13:44-46). It’s the same message.  I will just say here that Jesus is only recorded as having said this to this one man.

 

But I digress. What might God be saying to you, to me? And how can we hear? Will it hurt? As we begin to consider this, let us hold on to the fundamental truth that God’s attitude towards you and me is always and only one of love. He will only lead us towards what completes us, fulfils us as beloved and precious children of God. If there is something hard for us to hear then it is for our growth, not to punish or to squash us.

 

The Hebrews passage I have already referred to talks of the ‘word of God’ and I am taking that to mean the scriptures, the bible, although God may speak to us in any number of ways. There are many ways to read the scriptures. Some of us here will have grown up with the idea that the Bible is a bit like an instruction manual – follow the maker’s instructions and all well be well. There are bits of the bible that read like that – but plenty that doesn’t. The Bible is a very varied book – actually 66 different books – written over a long period of time with very different aims in mind. I guess some of us have at some time done ‘bible study’ – often in groups like our home groups – where we analyse the passage, pull it apart, try and make sense of it. This way of reading scripture is perfectly valid, but it tends to be quite analytical, quite ‘head-based’. And then there are lots of people who hardly read the scriptures at all, for whatever reason.

 

I would like to introduce a way of engaging with scripture that just may help us to hear what God is saying to me, now. It’s an ancient method, and some of us are familiar with it, some not. It’s a way of reading scripture that takes into full account that God is present. Present with us as we read, but also present in us as we read. It’s like reading a book when the author is actually in the room with us, whispering to us, I wrote this for you!

The method goes by different names – Lectio Divina is the traditional name meaning ‘divine reading’ or ‘sacred reading’, but it’s also known as ‘dwelling in the word’. First, you need to choose a passage to read – the gospels are good places to start. I have listed some places you could start with on the sermon printout. This way of reading scripture is really prayer.

First, select a passage of scripture and the find some time – perhaps 15 or 20 minutes – and a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Phone off. Door shut.  Then, you will need to become still. This is perhaps the hardest part. Sit comfortably, perhaps take some slow, deep breaths, breathing in God and breathing out any anxieties you have. Put down what is concerning you. Slow down. Pray, ask God to speak with you as you engage with the passage you will read. Turn to the text and read it slowly, gently. You might read it out loud to yourself – this is a good way to slow down, to prevent you rushing forward. You might pause after reading it once and read it again, and again. Savour each portion of the reading, constantly listening for the “still, small voice” of a word or phrase that somehow says, “I am the word for you today.”  Does a word jump out for you? Or slowly emerge as important? Does it touch you in some way? Become aware of what is happening to you and in you: you may find that there is a gentle reaction in your body – a warmth in your heart, a sense of excitement, a tightening of your throat as you read, you may even tear up. Something – or someone – in you is reacting to what you are reading and it is here that God is giving you something that you need to hear and receive. In lectio divina God is teaching us to listen to Him, to seek Him in silence. He does not reach out and grab us; rather, He softly, gently invites us ever more deeply into His presence.

Next take the word or phrase into yourself. Memorize it and slowly repeat it to yourself, allowing it to interact with your inner world of concerns, memories and ideas.

Then, speak to God. Whether you use words or ideas or images or all three is not important. Interact with God as you would with one who you know loves and accepts you. And give to Him what you have discovered in yourself during your experience of meditation. Experience God using the word or phrase that He has given you as a means of blessing, of transforming the ideas and memories, which your pondering on His word has awakened. Give to God what you have found within your heart.

As an example, perhaps you are reading the story of Jesus calming the storm (Luke 8:22-25). As you read, these words stand out for you – ‘Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm’. As you read them out loud again, and again, you sense that these words are for you: there are many worries in your life at present, it feels like a storm. You allow these words to soak in and you respond in prayer, ‘Lord, it feels a bit like a storm in my life right now. Please, speak that word. Let there be calm.’ And then you might just rest, even perhaps picturing yourself in the boat, sitting with Jesus. It is the safest place to be.

 

Henri Nouwen, the priest, and author, tells this story: ‘There was a soldier who was captured and made a prisoner of war. The enemies took him far away and he was completely isolated from his family and friends. He did not hear anything from home and he felt very lonely and afraid. He felt he had nothing to live for and was in despair. Then, he got an unexpected letter, crumpled and dirty because it had travelled so long and so far to reach him. It was just a piece of paper, but precious to him because of the words it might contain. He opened the letter and read these simple words: “Everything is fine. Do not worry. We will see you back at home and we all want to see you”. This simple letter changed his life. He suddenly felt better and no longer despaired. There was a reason to live. The external circumstances of his life, his imprisonment and isolation, did not change. He continued his labour, endured the same difficulties, but he felt completely different on the inside. Hope was reborn in him that day.  There was a word of God in the words of another. What I am trying to say is that God has written us a love letter in scripture, the written word.[1] May we learn to read it, and to hear it, and allow it to speak to us, and let it bring in us the gifts of hope and faith.

 

Richard Croft

 

 

Here are some passages to get you started on Lectio Divina:

 

Luke 10:38-42, Mary and Martha

Mark 10:46-52, The healing of blind Bartimaeus

Matthew 8:28-34, the Gadarene swine

Genesis 32:22-31, Jacob wrestles with the angel

Exodus 3:11-14, I AM who I AM

Matthew 5:14-16, You are the light of the world

 

There is lots written about Lectio Divina. Try googling ‘lectio divina passage’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Nouwen, Henri, Spiritual Direction – wisdom for the long walk of faith, SPCK, London, 2011, p. 100

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Sermon 26 September 2021 Creation 4

 

Praying for Creation James 5.13-20, Mark 9.38-50

The picture on the screen shows Växjö cathedral in Småland Sweden.  As you know, Oxford diocese is twinned with Växjö diocese.  This time last week we were there visiting our daughter.  Like us the cathedral is marking the season of creation and its newsletter encourages members to risk taking more steps to cherish the earth, our common home, as we face a climate emergency.  The city of Växjö itself has a huge power plant generating electricity from waste wood (Sweden is a country of forests) and we noticed our daughter’s food waste bag says that the food waste contributes to biofuel for Växjö’s buses. The cathedral is open every day for prayer and sitting there in that very green city seemed a good place to start thinking about this particular Sunday when the focus is on praying for the earth and its inhabitants.

The reading from the letter of James describes the power of prayer, especially in Jesus’ name, and refers back to Elijah’s prayer for rain.  This is a good enough place to start considering praying for creation.  It’s a reminder of our dependence on the earth for the food grown on it and of our dependence on rain for that growth.  We are encouraged to pray for what we need. There are several prayers for rain or good weather in the BCP, and then prayers of thanks when these happen. We might feel called to pray for rain in those countries where there is drought.  Here, too, we need rain, and we might also want to pray for more wind so that our wind turbines generate more of the energy we seem to be short of at present.  However, in a situation of climate crisis, perhaps something deeper is also required.

For that I want to turn to today’s gospel reading. It includes some strange and difficult statements by Jesus.  In reading Jesus’ words about chopping off a foot etc I was reminded of a favourite aunt who used to babysit for my sister and myself when we were little. She would sometimes look at us and say, ‘You’re so lovely I could eat you!’  I don’t remember either of us ever worrying that she might serve us up for dinner.  What we experienced was a sort of passionate wave of affection directed at us.

Jesus’ words here express some passion.  They are not to be taken literally, just as we didn’t take my auntie’s words literally.  However, we have to take note of what was so important that he would use such violent language.  He’s talking to his disciples.  What does he want them to understand?

A couple of Sundays ago we reached a sort of hinge point in Mark’s gospel – Peter’s confession of who Jesus is and then Jesus explaining that in order to bring in God’s kingdom his path would involve suffering and death and that his followers needed to be ready to lose their life in order to save it – an off the wall idea which none of them understood. Instead, immediately before this they are arguing about who is to be the greatest in the kingdom, and then here we see James and John trying to define who is in and who is out in their group.  Time is running out for Jesus.  He and the disciples will soon be on that final journey towards Jerusalem.  He has to get them to grasp the infinite value of entering God’s kingdom.  Nothing must get in the way, nor must they let anything get in the way of others entering.

The kingdom can perhaps be summed up as everything to do with human flourishing – relationship with God, with one another and with the whole of creation (as Jeremy highlighted in his sermon last week).  Shalom might be a Hebrew word we could use – peace, wholeness, justice.  This is worth surrendering everything for (remember the pearl of great price and the treasure in the field – parables recorded in Matthew’s gospel).

The focus here is on the disciples’ relationship with one another.  If we were to use more contemporary language we might say that Jesus is saying that choosing the kingdom is so important that its worth surrendering their ego. That’s the means by which in losing their life they will save it – ie be free to enter the kingdom, to enter fully into human flourishing, to be free to enable others to do the same.  It’s not about who is the greatest, or who might have a VIP ticket, nor about who gets the best seats; it’s about ‘giving ourselves in love and service to one another’ to quote one of the prayers in our communion service. The letter from James makes it clear that a natural part of this loving and serving is about praying for one another, for our sisters and brothers.

I’d like to extend this to our relationship with the earth.  St Francis does this beautifully when he addresses aspects of creation as brother sun and sister moon for example.  He encourages us to view our existence on earth in a similar way to our relationship with a human sister or brother.  We pray for our sisters and brothers out of a sense of relatedness to them (Cf Alan Denny and Susan Bicknell).  In the same way, our deepest prayer for the earth comes out of relatedness. If we are simply observers, looking at creation rather like an interesting object, but not as something with which we are intimately connected, it’s harder to pray for the earth itself, rather than for what we can get out of it. Just as relating to each other involves surrendering our ego, so too does relating to the earth.

How do we do this?  For this I’d like us to consider that somewhat enigmatic statement at the end of our gospel reading. ‘Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.’  Salt flavours things and also preserves them.  In ancient times it was a valuable commodity (it’s where we get the word ‘salary’ from).  Jesus is saying that his followers will add a valuable seasoning and preservative wherever they are.  It’s a kingdom of God seasoning and preservative that nurtures peace – shalom – peace with justice, human flourishing.  James shows us what that can mean in the life of a church – having the kind of relatedness that means we truly care for one another – eg praying for the sick, or searching for those who have lost their way.  The same kind of connectedness enables us to pray for creation.  If we are to give ourselves in love and service to the earth we have to develop a loving relationship with it.  So, praying for the earth involves practising, developing this  connectedness; actually loving the earth in the way we love those closest to us.

 

Essentially this is about attentiveness to whatever nature we have around us – sights, sounds, smells.  Being fully present in nature, rather than focussing on what we need to get out of it.  I find that spending time looking at the Kennet that runs through our parish does this for me.  Sooner or later as we do this we hear that call running through Mark’s gospel, ‘Repent, (followed by the bit we so often leave out) and believe the good news’.  Repent is what can happen when confronted by some awesome aspect of God we hadn’t fully noticed before.  Suddenly we see our own littleness, our meanness, or whatever (think Peter confronted by Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish – Depart from me, for I am a sinful man).  We’re both drawn towards whatever is this aspect of the divine and repelled at the same time by our own inadequacy, unworthiness; hardly daring to look at the splendour we have glimpsed.  This is what Jesus wants his followers to grasp – look at what the Kingdom is, look at what the invitation to enter offers, be drawn towards it, allow yourselves to repent, to surrender your ego, to let go into God’s shalom. Doing that we are like the salt that adds flavour, zest to creation and, most importantly at present, the salt that preserves it for future generations. Our prayer for the earth and our sisters and brothers inhabiting it comes through a relatedness nurtured in the good news of the kingdom of God; accepting Christ’s invitation to dwell there, light and free, our egos surrendered.

Christine Bainbridge

 

 

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Sunday 12th September 2021 – Creation 2

It has been a busy week for me in the run-up to Freshers Week at the University. When I finally got time yesterday to prepare this sermon I was already somewhat ‘highly strung’.

My wife, Jo, feminist and academic, had gone away on a hen weekend with her future sister-in-law, part of which included a pole-dancing lesson – a prospect she was not looking forward to. This left me having to squeeze my sermon prep into the space of a train journey to Nottingham as I took our eldest son, James, to Nottingham University for an Open Day.

I was conscious of not having enough space, neither in time nor in my temperament, to listen to God and find room to plan a grace-filled sermon. As I set out on my train journey it got worse.

Being a middle-class, introverted, academic, and one who is privileged enough to live in a large house out of town, it’s something of an existential shock to find myself plunged into the crowded surroundings of a Saturday at Birmingham New Street. By the ticket gates I navigated the drunk who dropped his ticket in front of me and who, when I picked it up and called him back, began joyfully to tell me about how he was tripping on mushrooms and had no idea where he was going so probably didn’t need it anyway. I pushed the ticket into his hand, suggested he find a seat to work it off, and quickly darted away to the nearest Costa seeking sanctuary. A few minutes later I found myself in a close-packed queue, none of whom were wearing masks. As I ordered my coffee, I suddenly noticed that in front of me my barista was a young women in dark hijab, whilst beside me was a perfectly made-up, lightly clad, Instagram-ready girl glued to her phone. The incongruity set me wondering: what has become of us? How have we made such a mixed-up world?

We fought our way onto the train in search of seats and found ourselves stood beside a young couple who had ostentatiously spread their possessions over two other seats, despite the numbers of people standing, and who scowled as I asked for room. When we finally sat, at the end of the carriage a previously unnoticed group of football supporters began to lift their cans of lager to the heavens and sing. I began to curse inwardly.

Before setting out that the morning, I’d lain in bed listening to Radio 4’s Lyese Doucet interviewing former Afghan president Hamid Karzai about the past 20 years. How it had begun with the Americans pledging to bomb the Taliban into the stone-age in punishment for harbouring Al-Qaeda. At the time, apparently, Afghanistan had been a country without a single telephone line. I thought back to the anti-war marches I had fruitlessly joined in 2001. Fortunately, on the back of the idiocy of billions of dollars of western bombs, aid agencies and businesses had gradually entered the country and brought about radical changes for the better, not least in women’s rights. But now there was a question of how much of this would survive. As I sat on the train, the futility of it all gloomily settled upon me. And then I sighed further, as I recalled that whatever sermon I would produce, it would have to speak about creation-tide and so mention the upcoming COP26 climate talks… What on earth could I say that might address any of this craziness, I thought, I as read the Biblical texts?

There are moments when the gulf between the world of the New Testament and our own seems cavernous. The imaginative leap we are required to take from the agricultural-focused Iron Age narratives of Jesus’s day to our hyper-consumerist digital age seems almost impossible to make.

An interior rant at the state of the world began to form in my head. And then came the icing on the cake: two seats down a couple of teenage girls began to broadcast loud bursts of music on their phones as they videoed themselves in Tik-Tok. From my vantage point I could see a two-inch long painted thumbnail doing its improbable best to click the record button every 30 seconds as the two of them waved and jiggled in their seats. The hour and a half long journey began to seem much longer. My contempt for humanity reached peak disdain and I found myself beginning to formulate a sermon in disgust at our stupidity, at the cultural froth we surround ourselves with, at the way our idiotic addictive consumerist life-choices are screwing up the world. I tried to imagine what Jesus would say – surely, he too would fulminate and shout in disgust, like some latter-day Elijah? (Or perhaps he would simply read the chapter from Proverbs we heard earlier).

And then something happened. Stood in the gangway I noticed an Asian woman in a colourful salwar, her grey hair neat in a bun. She had moved toward the Tik-Tok girls and I watched as she smiled down at them like a grandmother and said something. I couldn’t hear what she said but I did hear, echoing down the carriage like a stream, the giggle of two young voices in response, a wonderful sound that was filled with youth and life. It was the most remarkable moment: I had just witnessed the briefest of encounters between humans. The music stopped and I swear the sun came out in the carriage and the faces of the people around me suddenly looked less severe and stony and ugly. Beside me, I realised that there was an older couple stood, whom I had not noticed before, balancing their heavy suit-cases precariously in the aisle, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to smile at them and offer them a hand to get their cases into the luggage rack. The journey was transformed.

‘Who do you say I am?’ asks Jesus in the villages near Caesarea Philippi, the capital city of the kingdom of Herod the Great’s son, Philip II. ‘You are the messiah’, says Peter proudly. And he means: you are a righteous, powerful man. You are an alternative to Philip. You are someone who can take Philip’s place and set the evil world to rights. You are someone who can stamp your righteous vision upon the ungodly, and we your followers will follow you like righteous zealots, like some kind of Christian Taliban. Sort of like me in my train seat: angry with the world and self-righteousness.

But no, says Jesus, Peter is not to call him a Messiah. The only title Jesus will accept is ‘the Son of Man’ which in our terms might just mean ‘The Human One’. I’m human, he says.

And then to Peter, he says, you must die to your ego. You must relinquish your fantasies of having power over other people. Those fantasies of righteous control must be transformed into a different kind of power, a power that is genuinely liberating of others, that brings about real change, rather than a power that just replaces one form of oppression with another holier form.

I do not know how we will solve climate change. I don’t know what will fix Afghanistan. I don’t know what can be done about many of the injustices in our world or the foolishness of our own culture. But on my train journey, I was reminded about what it means to be properly human, like Jesus, by a little Asian woman’s friendly words to a couple of teenage girls.

When the Tik-Tok girls passed me by to get off, I looked up into their faces and marvelled at their youth and beauty: two of God’s many miracles whom just a little while earlier I had been too blind with fulminating anger to see. And I was reminded that, like Peter, my own egotistical fantasies of self-righteous control and power must go the way of the cross. I, too, must learn a different way, a way that looks into the faces of others and sees in them as fellow children of God, rather than as objects to be controlled or problems to be solved. Whatever the future holds, however we are to navigate the many difficulties we face, to follow Jesus means to reject the way of the Messiah and the path of the self-righteous angry zealot.

Jesus says to us, ‘If any wish to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross … for those who wish to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life (lose their ego) for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.’

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St John and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, August 29th 2021, Trinity 13

Song of Solomon 2:8-13, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

‘Give me an undivided heart’

 

It would be difficult to find two readings that are more different. The one, part of the beautiful love-poem of Song of Solomon with its invitation to “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!”; the other a showdown between Jesus and some religious leaders over washing before eating. Yet there is a thread running between them, which, if only we can see it, we will find is made of the purest gold.

 

Let’s start with the gospel reading from Mark 7. Jesus and his disciples are enjoying some welcome food after traipsing around on hot and dusty roads all day. Some Pharisees and other religious leaders come by and find that they haven’t washed their hands and rebuke them, since this is against the strict rules of ritual cleanliness they observe. Now let’s understand this before we go on. Back in Exodus, there is a requirement that priests wash hands and feet before ministering at the altar (Ex 30:17-21) – understood to include washing before eating meat offered in the sacrifices. The Pharisees took this a step further since, based on another text – ‘you shall be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation’ (Ex 19:6) – they regarded all Jews as priests. They believed in the priesthood of all believers! So everyone had to obey this rule in order for Israel to fulfil its role of priesthood. Right?

 

In some ways, this passage reads a bit like a family argument. Everyone is Jewish, and deeply religious, and they are arguing about something that seems quite trivial. Yet here it is in today’s gospel reading, and 2000 years later we are still reading it. What’s the point?  It’s a critique of how religious people too often exalt rituals above ethics. The wider picture here is that Rabbi Jesus and his followers had been going around calling people back to God, telling stories about God’s love for the lost, giving hope, healing the sick. And they’re hungry. Yet these religious leaders picked on their unwashed hands to have a go at them. Should they not have had regard for what they were actually doing?

 

The ‘trivial’ moment exposes something much deeper and Jesus confronts it head-on. His accusation is that they are ‘hypocrites’ (Mark 7:6). The word ‘hypocrite’ means ‘actor’ in Greek. It is someone who pretends to be who he or she is not. It is a denial of a person’s authentic self in favour of a made-up persona that he wishes to be. Religious people are very susceptible to this so all of us should take note! There are so many, many examples of this and none of us are exempt. We can do the right things, say the right words, perform the right religious practices – attend church, read the bible, say our prayers – but the reality of what we are, who we are can be quite different. Every so often a minister or preacher or bishop is caught out and we put our head in our hands and wonder what it’s all about, for it spills ink all over what we hold dear.

 

These religious leaders who criticised Jesus for eating with unwashed hands were using this seemingly trivial infraction of his to criticise a man who threatened their status, and they were coming to hate him. In time, their hatred would convince them that it was right to hand him over to the Romans to be nailed to a cross. Their hypocrisy was deadly.

 

The theologian Paul Tillich said that self-integration is one of the basic functions of life. What this means is that in order for us to flourish, we have to find our centre, our heart, and move out from that in integrity, freedom and courage. Another theologian, has described the human condition of sin – or we might say hypocrisy – as being divided against yourself in your very own being. To put it another way, you have a divided heart. That’s why I chose this short prayer from Psalm 86 as a title for this sermon: ‘Give me an undivided heart’ (Ps 86:11).

 

But we must dig even deeper. Jesus goes on, calling the crowd that had gathered and explaining that nothing that comes in from the outside can defile is, or make us unclean, unacceptable to God. No! it is from within, Jesus says, from the heart, that evil intentions come: theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness and so on. This is what defiles us. But what should come from our hearts – and can come from our hearts is (quoting Paul from Galatians): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self control (Galatians 5:22,23).

 

Let’s take a breather and head back to the Song of Solomon. How many times have you heard a sermon on this book? It’s a love-poem with two characters, a woman and a man, full of intense love, playfulness, beautifully described male and female bodies, plenty of sexuality, mountains and valleys, grapes and figs, goats and sheep. It is openly and deliberately erotic! (unfortunately we didn’t read one of the juicy bits this morning, more’s the pity!) The church has sometimes found the Song of Solomon a bit too hot to handle so has interpreted it as expressing the love between Christ and the church. Well, it will do for that too!! Anything that helps us understand how much Christ does love the church and everyone in it is to the good! But it’s difficult to escape its primary purpose which is to celebrate and affirm human love.

 

How on earth does it connect with the family row we have been thinking about, hypocrisy and the human heart? Ah! The human heart. In the Song we are treated to what an undivided heart looks like.  There is no hint of hypocrisy here, or of a divided heart. Both characters are full of love for one another: there is no other motive, they are not trying to cover anything up.  Their love for each other, fills them: their minds and their bodies as well as their hearts.  It is the very opposite of what we read in the gospel about hypocrisy.

 

I’d like to invite you now to bring to mind and heart for a moment someone you love. Might be a partner, a child, mother or father, a friend. That person might not even be alive now. Just hold him or her in your mind and heart for a moment. How does that feel for you? It is a wonderful thing to love someone. Can you say where your love is, in which part of you? In your mind? In your heart? In your body? Actually, it’s in all of those places. It fills us. It is, I hope, undivided.

 

Reflect for a moment that this is how God regards you. With undivided love. He is not in two minds about you and me. There isn’t something horrible that’s hidden. His desire for us is that, like a flower unfurls its petals as the sun falls on it, so our hearts will open in the warmth and light of his love and we will find out who we are. Which is a beloved daughter or son of God. A brother or sister of Jesus. Yes! Let that in. It is the deepest, truest, most important thing to know. It is the work of our lives to find it, to know it, and to live it. This is the centre, the source from which our lives can flow. In the Song, through the words of the lover, we hear these words, an invitation to receive and enjoy that love: ‘My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!”’ (Song 2:10)

 

Jesus didn’t find this open heart of love in the religious leaders who rebuked him and his followers for not washing. The men (they were all men, perhaps that was part of the problem) who should have known the love of God, didn’t. What they projected was religious superiority and purity. What was underneath that was fear and murderous hatred.

 

I guess we all live somewhere between these two poles: the open heart of love and some level of hypocrisy. If you want to know where your weak points are, think of what really gets under your skin, makes you react – but not in a good way. By the way, I love that phrase ‘get under your skin’ because often these reactions are in our bodies – we will stiffen up, our stomach turns over, our flesh crawls. What sorts of people might make us react like that? A homeless man begging with a dog? A man with a long beard and a turban? Someone with piercings? A drug addict? Or someone else? Might be something really trivial. I know some of the things that get under my skin and my reactions are not pretty. We will need to reflect on these – why does this person make me react so badly? Why do I want to criticise or rebuke? What’s underneath it? It might be a very unwelcome truth about you or me. Once we see it and are aware of it, we can begin to bring it into the light. Which can be difficult. There isn’t a magic wand, our reactions can be very deeply rooted.

 

This morning we have overheard a family row in our gospel reading and considered what hypocrisy means: pretending to be what we’re not. We have seen how deeply negative thoughts and feelings can hide behind a cloak of ritual, of appearance. And that religious people – that’s you and me – are particularly prone to this. We thought about the phrase a divided heart. Then we reflected on what an undivided heart looks like and read a bit of the love-poem of Song of Solomon to catch a glimpse of what that is like. And looked within ourselves and, I hope, found that at a deep level within us, we know what this means: it is within our human experience. We moved on to think about how the most profound truth about who we are, you and me, is as a beloved child of God, a sister or brother to Jesus. The invitation this morning is this. Firstly, to accept, allow in, to bask in that truth, to find our centre. “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!” Because this is what we are made for. Secondly to see what it is that trips us up in that other person, and then to lift up the stone and see what crawls out from underneath it. Lifting up the stone brings it into the light. ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name’  (Ps 86:11). ‘My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away!”’ (Song 2:10)

 

Richard Croft

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Sunday 18th July – Trinity 7

Mark 6 v 30-34 and 53 to the end.

Meeting God when we are busy

We meet up with friends maybe after a service on a Sunday morning and we ask the time-honoured conversation starter “how have you been?” and after a pause for thought one of the stock answers that we give is “Busy”. This is usually true – no matter where we are, whether working or retired, with a young family or with children grown up, whether in a family or living alone – we are almost always busy. So, there is a truth in our reply, is it just observational, is our reply something of a complaint or is a subtle attempt at bragging? It can be both.

We probably have this love-hate relationship with being busy. On the one hand we are stressed and strained by being busy but on the other hand, we probably quite like it because it gives us a sense of value and importance, we are helping making a difference.

So, in our conversations we may complain about it to the people we are talking and perhaps even to God but at the same time we are probably reluctant to give it up.

This may well present us with a dilemma because as spiritual people we become aware that our being busy often robs us of an awareness of God’s presence. We get so focussed on those outward demands and the pressures of the day; the here and now crowds in; leaving little time or space to focus either inward or upward. Yet at the same time much of our being busy may be necessary and good. Our lives may be filled with doing things to please God or serve him. To be good providers and taking care of others.

We find ourselves strained by this.

In the gospel reading today the text provides a remarkable description of the demands made on the time and energy of Jesus and the disciples. They are trying to fill Jesus in on all that they have done but they can’t manage it because of all the people coming and going. So, Jesus suggests they go away for some time together. But this just lands them in the middle of another large crowd.

How do you think this made the disciples feel? Earlier in the chapter Jesus had sent them out two by two taking nothing for the journey, no bread, no bag or money. They had preached, driven out demons and anointed sick people who had been healed. I have to say, to me, that feels pretty intense and making a lot of demands on them. I expect they were exhilarated, exhausted, hungry, bewildered, not fully understanding what was happening, having loads of questions, needing to refocus. And many more feelings besides.

There will be periods in our own lives where there will be high demands and maybe for you that is the default setting. In those times you may be looking to get away from it. How would you feel if that got interrupted?

Jesus is caring for his disciples, wanting to give them his undivided attention and to help them get some rest. This is interrupted but his response to the interruption is not frustration or resentment but compassion.

So, if we are feeling the strained by being busy how do we keep ourselves connected to God aware of his presence? If we are to live spiritual lives, does it mean giving up, at least some of, the activities we are engaged in? or does it mean adding something else, some spiritual disciplines to the already demanding day? Is this something we might ask ourselves?

Is this the right question though. Perhaps what we need to wrestle with goes deeper and may bring clarity if we are confused, feeling guilty or anxious about this.

Perhaps the question we might need to ask is “what is life about: what truly matters? When we have lived out our lives what was it about that will offer us the deepest sense of satisfaction and joy?

I think spiritual disciplines are a good thing and were/are never intended to be a chore, a task or just one more demand on over-burdened schedules.

Spiritual disciplines are simply doorways to our hearts, to intimacy with God. They are opportunities to open ourselves in heart and mind to his love, his wisdom and direction, to his blessing, his healing and help, to his presence.

Our relationship with God is not about one more thing to do. It is not another demand. Our relationship with God is meant to be the centre from which our life’s activities flow.

In his book Making All Things New Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Jesus does not respond to our worry filled way of living by saying we should not be so busy with worldly affairs…. He does not tell us that what we do is unimportant, valueless or useless…. Jesus’ response to our worry filled lives is quite different. He asks us to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the centre of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to move from the “many things” to the “one necessary thing” …. Jesus does not speak about a change of activities, a change of contacts, or even a change of pace. He speaks about a change of heart. This change of heart makes everything different, even while everything appears to remain the same. This is the meaning of “Set your hearts on his kingdom first… and all these other things will be given you as well.”

I thought it might be helpful to briefly explore some spiritual disciplines to see if there is the possibility of finding God when we are busy.  Perhaps to reorder to place God in the centre and see what we discover by doing that.

There are six I would like to touch on.

  1. Scripture study
  2. Confession
  3. Community
  4. Silence
  5. Obedience

So, Scripture study – God’s word is one of our greatest resources for knowing him. Jesus endorsed scripture. He knew it; taught and lived by it; fulfilled it! God does not use his word to primarily impart information but to guide our feet, shape our lives. If we are to avoid our being busy becoming empty and just activity for the sake of it and to withstand the pressures we are under and have God’s values then we need to absorb his word.

There is one scripture I remember above all others from my teenage years with the youth group at this church; Romans 12 v2 (J B Phillips version) “Do not let the world squeeze you into its mould” which is the first half of the verse. The second half (which I don’t always remember) is be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Confession – the temptations we face in our busy lives are many. Temptations to pride. Temptations to neglect the people in our lives. Temptations to step on others in order to “get ahead”. Temptations to take short cuts which are less than honest. Temptations to be self-focused.

The discipline of confession offers us an opportunity to invite God’s Spirit to correct us where we need correcting and to call us to repentance when we need to turn. Confession opens the door to forgiveness and to positive, life giving change. It is a discipline which builds us into people of integrity – honest, fair and loving in all that we do and say.

God calls us to be honest – honest with ourselves, with him and with each other. He does not want us to be defensive (it has taken me a long time to work on this) or blind, but to be open to him so that he can teach us to love as he loves. Confession is an opportunity to tell the truth about the ways we have hurt ourselves and others by turning from God’s way of love.

Community – being busy can isolate us. We may do a lot of activity and keep us in contact with others, but it may prevent us from developing the deep relationships we need. We were created for relationship with God and with each other. Being an introvert, this is something I find difficult and have to work at and sometimes feel on the edge of this fellowship despite worshipping here for more than 40 years. In 1 Peter 1 v 15-16 it calls us to “Be holy because I am holy”. Apparently, the word in Greek is in the plural. The call to holiness is primarily a communal one. We are called to be holy together, in the way we relate, in the way we communicate, in the way we respect, defend, pray for, worship with, and challenge each other. We are called to be in community and it is in such community that is where the life of the people of God is.

Silence – For many of us the disciplines of silence and meditation are the most difficult to pursue. We want to do something. Sometimes, however, God wants us simply to come before him and wait.

Again, as an introvert, a person who recharges their batteries by spending time alone, whose first response is to go to the inner world of thoughts and feelings rather than the outer world of action and interaction. You would think that I would find this easy. However, while I went on silent retreats and looked forward to them immensely; every time I went, and without fail it would take me up to a day to achieve a level of inner silence to match the outer silence of the setting and there was a direct corelation with the amount of activity and stress that had occurred before I got there.

But the struggle was worthwhile as God would meet me there and by the end my perspective would invariably be very different. At times I was able to look back and realise that God had been present without me being aware.

We see silence and solitude throughout the Old Testament, think of Elijah and his journey into the wilderness, Abraham’s journey to sacrifice Isacc and Jesus would withdraw to pray. But even right at the beginning of the scripture we read of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Why would you walk in a garden – to find space?

Henri Nouwen again – “Although the discipline of solitude asks us to set aside time and space, what finally matters is that our hearts become like quiet cells where God can dwell, wherever we go and whatever we do”.

Obedience – either side of the verses for our gospel reading today were instances of Jesus giving instructions to the disciples, first sending them out two by two and then in the feeding of the 5000 using their five loaves and two fish, part of this intense and demanding time they are having with Jesus.

They listened and followed. Their efforts were multiplied and blessed many. God wants us to stay close by his side so he can guide and teach and care for us. He wants us to walk with him, loving and caring. This is the call to obedience. As we practice the discipline of obedience and watch God’s will unfold in our lives, we will grow in our trust of God’s tremendous love for us and our desire to continue this discipline will grow even stronger.

Prayer – it can happen to any of us that we can find ourselves too busy to pray, so caught up in all that we have to do that we lose our awareness of God’s presence and of our constant need for him. But it does not have to be like this. Even in the midst of life’s demands we can stay connected to God asking for help and direction for an ongoing awareness of his presence.

Especially, when we are busy, we need prayer more than ever as we strive to cope with the demands placed on us. Jesus would feel sapped of his strength at times and would need renewing and without this would have nothing to give. So, it has to be true for us.

Life may be busy but we can find God in the midst of it. I hope by reflecting on these spiritual disciplines we can, with God’s help, reorder our world placing our true heart’s desire at the centre of all things. I pray that we will discover peace and joy which come when we practice the presence of God in all that we do and in every place that we go.

Amen.

 

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Sermon 6 after Trinity 11 July 2021

Amos 7.7-15, Mark 6.14-29     Amos and John the Baptist

 

I want to talk about prophets this morning.  It’s a big topic and I can only consider a few aspects in a sermon.  I’m also aware that prophets can be controversial and that we won’t all necessarily have the same view of them, so hold on to your seats!

Perhaps we see them mainly them as people who can foretell the future, especially around Xmas when we hear prophecies from Isaiah and other prophets that anticipate the arrival of Christ.  Certainly, foretelling is a prophetic characteristic.  It’s a feature of having a clear sightedness in relation to the times in which the prophet lives.  They seem better able to read the signs of the times than many of us.

Photo of Sue Parfitt being arrested.  Rev Sue Parfitt is pictured here in central London after taking part in an act of non violent civil disobedience with several others by locking herself with chains underneath a lorry near Marble Arch.  Sue was for some years the adviser for pastoral care and counselling in the diocese where Richard and I served.  It was rather a shock to see pictures of her being arrested!  She said, ‘The only reason I am here is because climate change is an emergency and we must take action now.  That’s why I’m prepared to be arrested.  If it makes people in power pay attention and ends the suffering of climate breakdown, it will be worthwhile.’

Sue is a member of Green Christian, as are some members here.  GC is best known for providing resources for serious thinking and speaking about environmental issues, especially climate change.  Some of you are doing a GC course called Plenty! that Rosemary is running.  About 6 years ago, though, some members, weary of the lack of action on climate change, formed an offshoot called Christian Climate Action which plans actions like the one Rev Sue took part in, always in places where there is significant political power, so quite often in London.

Photo of 3 more members of CCA, blocking traffic.

Here we see more members of CCA – Ruth Jarman, Fr Martin Newell and another protester holding up traffic in central London.

I want to suggest that these protesters are examples of modern day prophets.

The prophets appearing in our bible, like Amos or John the Baptist, have certain characteristics; like Amos they hold up a plumb line, (Picture of the plumb line) to contemporary life and point out where it is wanting. A yardstick might be a word we would use.   The OT prophets had a particularly sharp inner yardstick and that was the covenant God made with his people through Moses which included the 10 commandments.  The covenant was given to Israel as a way of enabling them to live individually and corporately in relationship with a holy God.  The people of Israel frequently broke their side of this covenant.  The prophets would be trying to pull them back.  Often they would direct their message to their leaders, as Amos does in our OT reading in his reference to King Jereboam.

In today’s gospel we see John the Baptist, the last of the OT prophets, standing in that tradition. (picture of John B) He has held up the covenant yardstick to Herod over his breaking the covenant law in relation to adultery by marrying his brother’s wife, so now he’s in prison and then executed.

So, another characteristic of prophets is that they make us feel uncomfortable, or angry and they may provoke opposition, especially from those in power, then facing suffering as a result.

Picture of Rosa Parks.  Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist famously known for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus, thus triggering the Montgomery bus boycott and all that followed. A modest action that had momentous consequences.  She was arrested and spent a day in jail – an experience familiar to a number of CCA activists.

 

These modern day prophets are all Christians, so perhaps they are doing more than holding up the OT covenant yardstick to us.  We have to ask, Was Jesus a prophet?  Last week’s gospel reading suggests that many people at the time thought he was, and Jesus, marvelling at the lack of faith in those from his home town used the saying, ‘A prophet is only without honour in his own town,’ as though confirming that understanding.  Certainly, in his words to the religious leaders of his day – the scribes, teachers of the law, the Pharisees, Jesus sounds very OT.  Instead of enabling their people to fulfil the covenant they we putting obstacles in their path, he says, calling them hypocrites and whitewashed tombs.

My hunch is that by including this gruesome account of JBs death in his gospel Mark is in effect starting to draw his listeners into the recognition that Jesus was more than a prophet.  He’s gradually leading us up to Peter’s declaration in chapter 8 ‘You are the Christ!’.  His narrative in our gospel reading today includes parallels between what lies ahead for Jesus and what is experienced by JB – opposition, arrest, appearing before a vacillating ruler, and execution – but it also hints at resurrection, which of course did not happen to JB.

So, Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition, but he’s more than a prophet and his story, unlike that of JB, will end in triumph over death.

I then have to ask, what is it that Christ brings to the prophetic tradition?  What’s his yardstick, if you like.  It’s there in his teaching about the kingdom of God.  It’s more about invitation than measuring us against a yardstick; an invitation to see, hear, receive and enter a way of life in which God is central  – the kingdom of God or ‘life in all its fulness’, to use the language of John’s gospel.  To take up the invitation usually involves a turning away from something, or turning in a different direction (repentance), a turning towards Christ and following in his footsteps. The invitation is there for everyone.  Jesus’ harshest prophetic language is therefore directed towards those religious leaders who behave as though faith is about joining a club which is only for the righteous as defined by them; a club for which they act as gatekeepers.

So, for Christian prophets, the yardstick includes holding in mind that fulness of life that Christ says is for everyone.  One question we might ask of any status quo, is whether it blocks or enables fulness of life.  The current climate crisis is a threat to human flourishing, just as segregation was, and prophets who may see more clearly than us and who read the signs of the times, bravely stand up and point out that reality.  There are other aspects of our status quo that threaten human flourishing too.  We may notice more of them as we enter more fully into that invitation of being part of God’s kingdom. We may well feel called to take action.

The prophets invite us to repent, to change our way of life before it is too late.  They remind us that we can choose life, life in all its fulness.  Not only that, but most importantly, since Christ’s resurrection, they remind us that death does not have the last word.  Resurrection is now woven into the human life story.  We can shout defiance confidently at whatever is death-dealing in our society.  At the end of the day we are on the winning side.

That could make it sound straightforward, but that’s not how it feels if you are considering doing something prophetic.  Listen to some of the things modern prophets have thought;

If I do this will it make things worse for the very people I’m trying to help?

Will it really make a difference?

Can I justify breaking the law?

What if it harms my family?

Suppose I’m trolled?

Do I have the courage to see this through?

(Picture of taking the knee)  As we draw towards that match tonight you might like to consider the closing slide.  How do you feel about it?  Do you see taking the knee as an example of political correctness, or of prophetic action?  What concerns might you have if you felt called to take part in an action of this kind? What might you want to say to those who do?

 

Christine Bainbridge

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Trinity 4, 27th June 2021

Mark 5:21-43: Compassion

Our gospel reading today has two more of Jesus’ miracles, healings this time, as we follow on from the calming of the storm that Claire talked about last week (Mark 4:35-41): Jairus’ daughter and the woman suffering from bleeding.

 

Claire’s sermon asked, Where is the miraculous today?  Does God intervene in response to prayer?  It is a tricky question.  It feels as if we should say, of course.  Miracles are in the Bible, how can we doubt them?  Jesus said to the disciples, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these (Jn 14:12).  But miracles are rare.  The church is not given some Harry Potter type magic, denied to other muggles, so that we regularly see miraculous healing.  So, what is going on, what do the miracle stories in the gospels tell us, how do we pray?  (I warn you that it is easier to ask these questions than to answer them.)

 

Jairus was the leader of a synagogue, a layman, not a priest; a bit like a church warden.  His 12-year-old daughter had become seriously ill, and was dying.  Jairus was desperate, falling down at Jesus’ feet and pleading with him to come and heal her.  It may have been a last resort, but he hoped that if Jesus came and touched her, she would be healed, and live.

 

And she was.  Though a messenger was sent to say Jesus was no longer needed, that she had died, Jesus continued on to the house, and restored her to life.  Jesus did not make a spectacle of the healing, sending everyone out, except for the parents and his disciples.  When he brought back the girl to life, he told the parents not to tell anyone.  In a nice, caring touch, he tells the parents to give her something to eat.

 

The woman suffering from haemorrhages has been ill for 12 years, a long time.  Bleeding was a serious issue, both as a physical problem, but also because of the Jewish regulations on being unclean.  With regular bleeding, she would have been unable to live a normal life, excluded from contact with people, with her bed and clothing and everything she touched becoming unclean. (Leviticus 15:25-30).  She would have not only been ill, but very isolated.  You see her nervousness in her reaction when Jesus turns to ask who touched him.  She was trembling with fright.

 

The woman told him the whole truth.  How else do we know about her twelve years of suffering, about spending her money on treatments.  (I cannot resist commenting on Mark’s turn of phrase concerning physicians: She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors.  Luke, himself a doctor, records it a little differently in his gospel: no-one could heal her. The equivalent passage is Luke 8:40-56.)  The woman had poured out her story, and Jesus took the time to listen.  His response was gentle, Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease. 

 

Jesus not consciously involved in this healing (like Peter healing when his shadow fell upon people in Acts).  The woman almost healed herself, except that it was Jesus power that did it; he felt it go from himself.

 

Can you imagine what Jairus was thinking during this episode?  His daughter urgently needed help.  His house was quite a long way away anyway.  This woman was clearly in need, but so was his daughter.  Why is Jesus taking so long?  Then the messengers arrived to say it was too late…  It was alright in the end, but he must have been in agony.

 

What are these miracles?  They clearly pointed to who Jesus was, and were a major part of his ministry.  It seems that the healing miracles were as much of a crowd puller than Jesus’ words, perhaps more so.  They were a sign that God’s was present, that his power was working through Jesus, that he was special, that he should be listened to.  Yet Jesus often tried to keep them quiet, as with Jairus daughter.  He would tell those he had healed not to tell anyone else.  This was not just a spectacle or a show.  They point to God, but when the stop pointing to God and become the story in themselves, they are out of place.

 

Which leads to the other reason for them.  Compassion.  Illness can be devastating.  It is a feature of our fallen world.  There is need all around us, and there was need all around Jesus.  His response was to help.  So with Jairus daughter, he was not trying to make a point, just to bring comfort to the family, to restore the girl to her life.

 

In our homegroup this week we discussed last week’s sermon.  There are issues.  Why would God just heal a person we are praying for, and ignore all those suffering far more?  Why would God answer apparently trivial prayers for guidance or exam results or finding lost things, when there are wars, famines, Covid.  You can end up arguing yourself into a position where you do not pray for anything, or you just pray for peace or for God’s will to be done.  Or, putting it a different way, you can conclude that praying for God to change things is a misunderstanding of God, that God cares for everyone and does not need our prayers to point out a need, that the whole world is miraculous, and healing through medicine or improved sanitation or better diets is just as important.  At the end of our homegroup, we end with compline, and have a time of prayer in that.  There was some hesitation about praying for specific things this week, after our discussion; but we did pray for a few people anyway.  One of the comments I found most telling was that, you may decide in your head that you should not be praying for God’s intervention, but you find you cannot help yourself praying.

 

Jesus healed some people, not others.  God is omnipotent, so Jesus could have healed everyone in a crowd, everyone in a town, everyone in Israel, everyone in the world.  But he healed those he came in contact with, often those he actually touched.

 

Have you seen the film Bruce Almighty?  Bruce (Jim Carrey) complains to God, and God (Morgan Freeman) comes to meet him.  God gives his power of answering prayer to Bruce, on the condition that he cannot tell any about it, and he cannot change free will.  Initially it seems great, he sorts out his own situation, and starts randomly making miraculous events occur.  But he gets overwhelmed by everyone’s prayers, and decides to give everyone what they pray for.  The result is chaos, and Bruce gives back God his powers.

 

It is a film, and it is a bit of fun, but surprisingly insightful.  Prayer is not magic.  It is not a formula of words that makes things happen.  It is not a state of mind that constitutes ‘faith’ that guarantees God will do what we want.  It is complex, to do with our relationship with God, discerning what God wants, what is right.  There is no marking system.  You cannot determine that if a need is above a certain seriousness level, God will intervene.  It does seem he sometimes answers trivial prayers, sometimes important ones.

 

What I take from the miracles in today’s reading is the sense of Jesus’ love, his compassion for people.  Irrespective of their position: Jairus was a leader, but the woman with the bleeding was an outcast.  Yet he was interested in them, dealt with them gently.  He was moved by their suffering and he acted.

 

As Christ’s followers, we are called to be the same.  To have compassion.  That will mean helping when we can and, yes, praying.  Sometimes we will know what to pray for, sometimes it will be more general.  And sometimes, God will answer our prayers as we expect.

 

Jeremy Thake

St. John & St. Stephen.

 

 

Mark 5vv21-43: A Girl Restored to Life and a Woman Healed

 

21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. 22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23 and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ 24 So he went with him.

 

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ 29 Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ 31 And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?”’ 32 He looked all round to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

 

35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ 36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ 37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39 When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ 40 And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

 

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Sermon for St John and St Stephen, Trinity 3B – 20th June 2021

 

Mark 4:35-41

Jesus Stills a Storm

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

Where is the miraculous today?

It was a blustery day in August 1992, and we were going on holiday to France on a catamaran-style ferry. Up till then I’d always been happy to travel on boats and had even, as a teenager, been strapped to a mast for safety during a strong gale, while taking a competent crew course sailing around the Isle of Wight in a yacht.

As we progressed on our ferry towards France the wind got up significantly and about an hour into the crossing, a steward appeared and announced that we were heading into a gale and that anyone who felt sick or who otherwise needed assistance should indicate now. I can’t remember what happened after that – obviously we got to France eventually, after the catamaran had cut its speed by three quarters to account for the swell – but something altered in my brain that day.

I don’t know if it was my age, or if something deeper triggered me, but from that time on, I became quite anxious about travelling at sea. I would obsessively watch the wind in the trees before boarding a ferry, to try and gauge how bumpy the crossing would be. Despite loving trips to France, I increasingly tried to avoid ferries and when this wasn’t possible, endured a couple of very unpleasant crossings, not because of any storm outside, but because of the one in my head.

Once, Chris had to singlehandedly shepherd our then three small children below decks to queue up and get everyone lunch, which included procuring a high chair, while I sat on the other side of the boat staring out into the in increasingly grey sky and confiding in a complete stranger that I was terrified. Another time I accompanied a school trip to Boulogne and whilst some children threw up on the coach, I just felt sick with nerves.

My reaction was tapping into some sort of deep-seated fear of the depths and of the unpredictability of the sea. In his commentary on this gospel story, John Pridmore refers to the ‘Jewish visceral dread of the sea’ (The Word is very near you, p. 196). I’ve since come across the word “thalassaphobia”, or fear of the sea and in particular of being in the middle of it and not being able to see either the land you’ve left, or the land you’ve yet to arrive at.

A crossing is some sort of metaphor for life I suppose – we’re on the journey between birth and death and all of us here, by definition, haven’t quite arrived ‘on the other side.’ It could also describe the position in the UK right now in that we’ve been in the middle of a pandemic for some time, and we still haven’t arrived ‘on the other side’.

The biblical fear of the sea begins at the dawn of creation where the Spirit broods over the chaos of the waters, and ends in Revelation’s vision of the New Jerusalem, that contains the promise of ‘no more sea’.

The fact that we’re generally disappointed that the seaside apparently doesn’t feature in heaven is a sign that our Western experience of the sea is very different from the gospel writers’ – and it’s important to bear this in mind when we come to the stilling of the storm today.

Although there are plenty of Westerners – I’m thinking of highlanders & other coastal dwellers – who do know the danger of the sea all too well; we are an island nation after all. One of my earliest experiences of spirituality at primary school was of wearing my Mission to Seaman badge with pride, aged 7. Shipwrecks and our national lifeboat service are testament to the reality of what TS Eliot referred to as ‘Death by Water’. Today thousands of refugees take to boats to make the most hazardous of crossings imaginable, which for many, have ended in tragedy – the elements being wholly against them.

The stilling of the storm in today’s gospel is well-known – a so called ‘nature miracle’. These seem to be rarer than the healing miracles, but does that make them more miraculous? Maybe we should see all miracles within the same framework of the breaking in of God’s kingdom on all levels. Being Lord of the body and Lord of the sea is nothing for Jesus, apparently. In addition, there isn’t supposed to be a sentence break between last week’s reading on the growing seed and this weeks on the stilling of the storm, – something to bear in mind as we come to the main question this morning:

Where is the miraculous today, and why is this an important question?

If you were watching the football last Sunday, you would’ve seen Christian Erikson of Denmark collapsing on the pitch? Did you pray for him, I wonder? Because countless people did. It’s the absolutely natural thing to do. We were all praying ‘please don’t let him be dead’ (at least I was). What did we think we were asking God at that point?

It’s important because it makes a lot of difference if we can expect God to intervene with a miracle when we pray, or if we feel there’s no point. We’ve all met people who stopped praying when God didn’t answer a prayer for healing, when God didn’t prevent someone they loved from dying. Or maybe you stopped praying because you started to wonder if praying for anything ever made a difference?

In our own prayers in church, we often pray for the sick. Does this involve an expectation of a direct intervention from God, that would otherwise not happen?

With our medical service in this country, is it even appropriate for us to expect God to heal miraculously, or are we more often simply asking God to give skill to medical staff because what they do is miraculous anyway? It’s certainly the case that some of the cures modern medicine can provide would have seemed miraculous to our forebears. And perhaps the enormous effort of our frontline staff during the darkest days of the pandemic is seen as miraculous. But are we in danger of watering down the concept, if what we really mean is that they went ‘above and beyond’?

So maybe the definition of miraculous changes over time, and maybe the beauty of the natural world, the way the seed puts forth a root, then a shoot, then the flower and the fruit, without us doing anything, is also as miraculous as Jesus calming a storm? Some people use the word ‘miraculous’ to describe something that was only perhaps extremely unlikely – but it counts for everything to them.

Have you got a miraculous story?

Or perhaps you’ve felt less of a Christian because you haven’t got one, though you’ve been a churchgoer for years? Maybe it’s a miracle you’re still going strong without a miracle?

This week I shared an article by writer and pastor John Pavlovitz, entitled ‘Prayer doesn’t heal people – At least, I hope not’. He thinks that if we have to endlessly petition God to do something (and only then will anything happen) we have the wrong view of God.

He writes this, specifically about prayer for healing: “I have asked for such prayers thousands upon thousands of times. I’ve solicited my congregations to pray for children in accidents, young mothers with cancer, and teenage gunshot victims. We have held prayer vigils and created online prayer chains and stood circled round ICU bedsides. In countless moments I have privately and desperately petitioned God to bring miraculous cures and to reverse seemingly hopeless situations, I believed healing was possible and I believed I could sway God with words to bring it about. I don’t believe that any longer.’ (www.johnpavlovitz.com)

The day I shared this was the day before Christian Erikson, collapsed on the football field and nearly died. Prayer on social media exploded! You may remember, too, a certain Fabrice Muwamba, also in his 20s, who collapsed on the football field? His heart stopped for 78 minutes. Given that he’s alive and well today, although no longer a footballer, you might think this was a miracle in itself.

Proving that we don’t really know much about the miraculous, least of all if there’s going to be a miracle on any specific day or not, and how many prayers it takes to get one. What we do know that it’s entirely natural to turn to Jesus when we’re in need.

And the disciples turn to Jesus in the storm. But it’s not a faith-filled turning and there’s not much piety involved! No ‘Oh Lord, we beseech thee’ etc. Just ‘Don’t you care that we’re perishing?’ John Pridmore writes, helpfully, ‘when did we start thinking we had to be polite to Jesus?’

Don’t you care….?

Don’t you care? is a very common biblical refrain for when God doesn’t appear to be doing anything (which is frequently). Theodicy* in three words: Don’t you care?

It turns out Jesus did care – he was just tired. He napped. Then he wielded cosmic power.

Here are the two natures of Christ in one: man and God (if you like spotting the pre-echoes of Christian doctrine in the bible stories).

So, things Jesus didn’t say to the disciples in the storm: “The storm may still be all around you, but I’m with you it in”. And “Work on your attitude to the circumstances, not the circumstances themselves”. And “others have it so much worse; just count your blessings”. And “God won’t give you more than you can cope with”.

And he doesn’t say “it just goes to show we must respect the environment and save the oceans”, which made the telephone call from Greenpeace that I took whilst writing this sermon, all the more ironic. The professional fundraiser on the end of the line wanted to know if I could give monthly towards the creation of ocean sanctuaries and I thought about Jesus rebuking the ocean and it was one of those surreal moments that sometimes happen when you’re trying to cultivate a Christian worldview.

But perhaps what joined those two things together was that chilling comment Jesus makes when talking about the end of the world in Matthew; that ‘people will live in fear of the sea’. Jesus appeared to know something about climate change.

So, he didn’t say any of the above things: instead, he got up and rebuked the wind – that is, he gave it a sound telling off. The sense of the word for ‘rebuke’ here is that he charged the wind and the waves – much like a policeman might charge someone with a crime before reading them the riot act. It’s more like an exorcism than anything else. The wind and the waves are not neutral here – they’re overwhelming forces that have to be stood against. They are, if you like, a sort of frightening chaos from which the disciples need to be delivered.

And he chided them for not having faith. I can only assume he meant not having the kind of faith he exhibited. It can’t mean ‘didn’t you have faith that the storm could be zapped?’ Because Jesus’ faith in the Father was so strong that he was asleep on a cushion even though the waves were about to submerge the boat.

And if we were tempted to think a few miracles that like would be most welcome today, what tends to happen with a bona fide miracle (that is, when the raging storm that was about to engulf you, stops immediately and there’s a dead calm) – well, that just gives you more questions!

Because the question the disciples are left with is “Who then is this, that the wind and waves obey him?” And that is a question borne out of swapping one terror for another. They were in terrified awe of death by water; now they’re in terrified awe of Jesus.

So, in fact, miracles can leave you with a lot more questions. Including, ‘why them and not me’. Why her, and not him?

Jesus’ decisive action in calming the storm, so immediately and emphatically, is the sort of action we all long for, isn’t it? We’d like him to halt the disease, take away the obsessive thoughts and show he’s properly in charge. But we also know that actions have consequences and that we are now living with an untameable climate that we have made more unstable by our consumerism. And that alone is giving us very understandable anxiety.

How do we keep hold of the sense of the miraculous without descending into the kind of transaction-type mentality we know in our heart of hearts seldom works (by that I mean, we pray for immediate, obvious divine intervention and it happens without any further human input and we think it’ll happen every time and then it doesn’t and we’re floored)?

God is not a celestial slot machine. Or perhaps he is. Joni Erikson Tada, a Christian who prayed for God to heal her quadriplegia, but who has spent 50 years in a wheelchair, wrote this: ‘just as we cannot box God in and say he always heals, we cannot box God in and say he never heals’ (www.annvoskamp.com) In a sense, we don’t know what will happen when we pray, but we pray anyway. And hopefully those prayers are more often ‘why don’t you care?’ than ‘O Lord, we beseech thee, etc.’

Does it show a lack of faith if we pray for the miraculous and it doesn’t happen? No. The focus of our faith is always about resting in God like Jesus did.

I guess all churches are on a spectrum when it comes to the miraculous. That’s why my favourite spiritual gift has always been discernment. When is it right to pray for a miracle and when is it right to live with something that afflicts us, while the grace of God grows ever more abundantly within us because of the affliction? This was St Paul’s experience eventually. Suffering can break us open to more love, if we let it.

I hope we’re not so far down the other end of the miracle spectrum, though, that we don’t expect God to act at all, but instead feel that everything is down to us. On this Fathers’ Day let it be our experience that like Jesus, we are content to rest on the cushion of God’s care whatever the outcome.

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Sunday 13th June 2021

The Parable of the Growing Seed Mark 4 v26 – 34

So here we are in Mark chapter 4, towards the end with Jesus speaking in parables to those who are following him. This is only one of the ways that he used to teach, at the end of the chapter directly after this section Jesus calms the storm perhaps displaying God’s desire to bring peace.

But here we are with a finely crafted short work of fiction. These are stories, not the same as a direct message so they don’t easily fall into categories that you can either agree or disagree with, something you either like or dislike. If we don’t like the message, we will usually react and argue without actually hearing and thinking about what is being said.

So, Jesus using parables, draws us in, takes us deeper engaging our imaginations asking us to interpret instead of argue. We are invited to give it a second thought, then to ask questions and stay curious. You may then find something more than agreement or disagreement – namely meaning.

Like those who came to listen to Jesus I suspect like them, most of us here have heard stories or sermons on “the kingdom of God is like or the kingdom of heaven is like” and we know that he did not mean a place where righteous people go when they die or that it meant the perfect new world that God will create after destroying this hopeless mess.

Our story is that the kingdom is at hand and within reach now, we know that it is upside down not based on top-down power, not about maintaining order and control by way of reward or punishment.  By being crucified Jesus demonstrated that God’s kingdom wins through gracious self-giving, that it is though weakness rather than conquest and it is more about reconciliation rather than humiliation. It triumphs through a willingness to suffer rather than a readiness to inflict suffering.

So, it is different from the world’s powers – upside down and that is what we follow and believe in. This is what we desire, a spark of something pure, something good, something holy an aliveness which shows us a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

So, what is it in these few short verses these very short parables that is asking us to use our imaginations, what is it we are trying to interpret in particular?

We can probably all see the surface meaning of the story: in this case the secret growth of the seed or the small seed produces a big bush. But can we interpret the layers underneath? Is it the same for those first hearers as it is for us?

The first parable; so simple and seems quite innocuous. The seed grows secretly, doing its own thing unobserved in the earth and eventually there appear the stalk, the ear of corn, and the swelling corn inside the ear. Then of course the harvest. Seems straightforward enough.

The hearers at the time would have understood the dangerous undertone at the end, when talking about the harvest. They would have known their scriptures and recognised a quotation from Joel (3 v 13) about the sickle going in at harvest which is all about the coming of the day of the Lord and judgement on the nations round about; the restoration of the fortunes of Israel. Jesus is telling them that God’s promised moment is coming. But it is not going to be what they expect.

Perhaps another layer underneath is the apparently innocent description of how the seed starts to germinate and grow. The seed going into the soil sleeping in the soil and then getting up. A reflection of the rhythm of God’s present creation, the cycles of night and day, the seasons a time for planting and a time for harvest. But what has that got to do with the kingdom of God? Is it that Jesus would go into the earth and then arise – is it similar to the words used for resurrection not so much about individuals but they would again have understood this as being to do with the restoration of Israel. Again, not the sort of kingdom of God movement people were expecting.

Both the parables are also stories warning against looking down on the small beginnings in Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and of the great work that God was to do. When two or three gather to meet and pray often it is the start of a new initiative that God has in mind. The second parable perhaps adds that Jesus is saying don’t worry but remember who your God is and what he has promised – that the kingdom will eventually offer shade to the whole world.

When I was preparing there were a couple of things in the parables that made me curious and want to dig deeper. The first being how little dependence there was on the man in the story; just the scattering of the seed (which he has been given) and the putting in of the sickle when it had ripened. Second, whatever the man does it grows and he doesn’t know how.

Is this where the link with our other reading comes in? (2 Corinthians 5 v7) “We live by faith, not by sight”. How hard it is trusting things that you cannot see and fully understand as you live day by day.

In our current society have we lost this connection, this dependence, this trust in God and his creation. Do we still marvel at what God has created? Or are we so insulated now because we think everything can be made? Is that where our security is? Is that what drives our activity? Is it that we think everything can be made – then everything needs to be taken in hand and we then get on the merry go round and if we don’t keep going everything will stop without us and – because of this we are so tremendously important? So, we can never let anything out of our hands to be entrusted to others. So, we hold on and endlessly wear ourselves out. We worry and stress about what will happen next.

We have forgotten how to rely on God “look at the birds of the air/see how the lilies of the field grow” (Matthew 6 v26ff)

I have colleagues at work who strive to be in control of everything and suffer greatly with stress because they are not, or can ever be. Others are so worried that if they make a mistake, they will be thought less of and they may lose their job. No matter what is said or what support is given it is so difficult if not impossible to shake them from this mind set. Some of these people have worked for the company for nearly 30 years and are highly thought of. I too fall into this way of thinking an acting.

The job becomes the source of security and take that away nothing remains.

Now let’s not be mistaken we have a role to play and will be accountable for what we do and how we are but God is the initiator, the prime mover. We have to pay attention and join in exercising our gifts; scattering the seed we have been given but we need to keep a sense of right perspective.

Anthony De Mello in his booklet the way to love makes the following suggestions about dealing with insecurity which is what my colleagues and I are experiencing

“If you wish to deal with your feelings of insecurity there are four facts you must study well and understand.

First it is futile to ease your insecurity feelings by trying to change things outside of you. Your efforts may be successful though mostly they are not. They may bring some relief, but the relief will be short lived. So, it is not worth the energy and time you spend.

Second, this fact will lead you to tackle the problem where it really is, inside your head. Think of people who in exactly the same condition that you find yourself in now would not feel the slightest insecurity. There are such people. Therefore, the problem lies not with reality outside of you but with you, in your programming.

Third, you must understand that this programming of yours was picked up from insecure people who, when you were very young and impressionable taught you by their behaviour and their panic reactions that every time the outside world did not conform to a certain pattern, you must create an emotional turmoil within yourself called insecurity.

Fourth, whenever you are insecure about what may happen in the future, just remember this; in the past six months or a year you were so insecure about events which when they finally came you were able to handle somehow. This was thanks to the energy and the resources that that particular moment gave you, and not to all the previous worrying which only made you suffer needlessly and weakened you emotionally. So, say to yourself: if there is anything I can do about the future right now I shall do it. Then I’m going to just leave it alone, settle down to enjoy the present moment, because all the experience of my life has shown me that I can cope with things when they are present, not before they occur.”

 

So be like the birds of the air; the lilies of the field live for the present. Each day has it troubles but set your mind on God’s kingdom before everything else and the rest will come to you.

We can help God bring about his kingdom by paying attention and watching it grow and acting at the right time. We have our part to play by how we act and what we do. The Kingdom was Jesus’ passion but he went about spreading a culture of hope and compassion among ordinary people breaking down prejudice and social barriers so we should be no different.

So, don’t do things to please others but be true to your deepest and best instincts. Act compassionately to others, cultivate an openness of heart, understand where people are and share what they are feeling. Seek to promote justice and peace, we are God’s eyes and ears arms and legs. Overcome evil with good with acts of love, peace, forgiveness and humility.

This so far has been individually focussed but there is a community element which links in with Claires vision and with what sort of church we want to be in place. How will we be known what descriptors best represent how we as a community are seeking to help bring in God’s kingdom in this area.

But the kingdom of God is much bigger than we can comprehend, bigger than we can see, something beyond us and our understanding so I want to finish with some words from Margaret Silf taken from her book Roots and Wings. Perhaps something more to pique our curiosity and make you wonder.

 

  • In the beginning was a seed, the size of a grain of salt. The seed was packed with potential.

 

  • The seed held the power to bring forth, to create, it held the power of life itself.

 

  • And the seed released its power in a big bang, giving birth to time and space.

 

  • And the power flowed forth, and flows still, fifteen billion years later. And the power was, is and always will be about life.

 

  • The seed contained everything that would bring forth. Life in all its fullness.

 

  • And the secret of the seed revealed themselves, through the silent reaches of the unfolding aeons,

 

  • Seeding the stars and the galaxies, shaping and sifting, gathering and dispersing

 

  • Energising space with the forces that both hold us together and urge us to grow, each in the direction of our true nature.

 

 

Richard Harwood 13.6.21

 

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Sunday 6th June 2021

The Inside Out Family: Mark 3.20-35

Please forgive me, but I have decided not to preach today on one of the thorny issues in our gospel reading, such as who or what is Beelzebub – or what might or might not be the ‘unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit’! Instead, I will focus on a theme that is probably much more on our thoughts and can be as equally challenging: our families.

I wonder what words or phrases come to mind when you think of the word ‘family’?
It might be words like supportive, loving, caring – or words like demanding, distant, or abusive. We each have such unique experiences of family life that it can be difficult to imagine ourselves in a very different family situation, particularly one of many hundreds of years ago. But today I would like us to both look back at the family in Jesus’ time and look forward to our church family and community in the future.

I have had the privilege over the last few years of working with several hundred people from our global family of United Bible Societies on how we communicate effectively across cultures. As in any family, we find that misunderstandings can quickly break apart healthy relationships. We use a tool called ‘the colours of worldview’ to explore how we each have different perspectives on life that colour everything from decision making to how we view relationships and family. One of these worldviews has been in existence for hundreds of years and was particularly strong amongst families in Jesus’ time: the worldview of honour and shame.

Let’s look at the first few verses of the Bible reading to see how this comes into play.
‘Then Jesus went home. Again, such a large crowd gathered that Jesus and his disciples had no time to eat. When his family heard about it, they set out to take charge of him, because people were saying, “He’s gone mad!”’
What has driven Jesus’ family to travel thirty miles from Nazareth to Capernaum to stop Jesus? And the phrase ‘taking charge of him’ is vastly underplaying it. It’s the same word used here as when Jesus and John the Baptist were arrested. So why travel so far to restrain and arrest Jesus?

To understand this better, we need to imagine ourselves into the worldview or mindset of these first century people. In those days, family was everything. A person’s identity was valued by their standing within their family, and whether they had brought honour or shame to it. And it wasn’t the nuclear family we think of today, but an extended one with cousins and uncles and aunts. Often nowadays people define us by what job we do, our salary or even what football team we support. In Jesus’ time the answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ would be ‘I’m the third son of …in the lineage of …’ Some of you may have experienced this worldview in your own family or in other cultures.
There was also a clear distinction between who was inside and who was outside the family. This is one reason why there is such a strong urging in the Bible of the need to support orphans and widows, as they had no family support to rely on.

In this Bible passage, Jesus’ family is worried that he will bring dishonour to them by being called mad, or even worse, possessed by spirits. By association, his loss of honour will do lasting damage not only to him but to his whole family.  And if Joseph is no longer alive, which seems likely from his absence in Jesus’ later years, then Jesus would be the head of this family unit. His actions will bring honour or dishonour on the whole family.

At the end of the passage we hear that Jesus’ closer family of his mother and brothers have arrived too. They don’t go in and confront him, because they don’t want to shame the family in front of others, but they want to call him outside to take him away.

Jesus’ response is remarkable:  A crowd was sitting around Jesus, and they said to him, “Look, your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, and they want you.”
Jesus answered, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”  He looked at the people sitting around him and said, “Look! Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does what God wants is my brother, my sister, my mother.”

From Jesus’ subsequent actions, particularly his care for his mother even as he lay dying on the cross, it’s evident he wasn’t disassociating himself from his blood family. But Jesus’ words are radical in the way that they are breaking apart the old way of being family and reshaping it anew. It’s no longer what family you are born into that matters. Your status isn’t built on your blood relatives, but on doing what God wants, the will of God. Being part of God’s family is not limited any longer. It is open to all, to everyone to be part of it.

Recently, Claire asked us what words best describe the kind of church family we are and the kind of church family we wish to be. Some of the people in our church Facebook group responded by using words and phrases like: ‘your loving church family’, ‘embracing, connecting, accepting’, ‘love, warmth, caring for each other and for the environment’
These are all great descriptions of how we view our church family and what we want it to be. But I want to look at this from a different angle and ask instead, how can we enable these all to develop within our church and how can we welcome people into our family?

I’d like to return if I may to the intercultural programme I mentioned earlier and share one of the tools we use. It’s a simple way to help us reflect on how we communicate with people who might have a different worldview and background to our own. It’s called the ‘triple A’.

Where it all needs to start is with the word: Awareness. In our programme we talk about how we are all intercultural learners. It all begins by being aware of the different worldviews people have and valuing this diversity. It’s also an awareness that people might be looking for something very different from our church family. In our Bible reading, we heard about those who had a narrow worldview and mindset. They found Jesus’ message disturbing and uncomfortable. It challenged their worldview of what family meant. How can we develop this awareness, to learn and value the difference of others as we encounter them in our community and in our church family?
The second word is Acceptance – an acceptance of the other person as they are and not expect them to have the same worldview as ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with them. It’s about understanding and accepting this difference. Churches over the centuries have tried so hard to be welcoming of others, but at the same time so often shoot themselves in the foot in the process. They often use rules that exclude many people, in an attempt to define who is inside and who is outside our church family. You may be able to think of a number you’ve encountered yourselves in churches. Here are a few quick examples of recent church bylaws, which illustrate this, (but thankfully I don’t think are in our own rules and regulations!):

‘An active church member is defined as one who gives at least one penny a year.’

‘Men serving communion are required to wear a coat and tie.’

‘No church member can drink alcohol except during the Lord’s Supper.’

But it’s often the unwritten rules or habits we create that can prevent people feeling accepted and part of God’s family. What might these be in our own church, or in our own attitudes to what we expect of people, if they are to be part of our family?

In our Bible reading, Jesus says that whoever does God’s will is his brother and sister and mother. And what this ‘doing the will of God’ is, remains a little mysterious. Jesus perhaps deliberately does not go into great details here. If we are to take its broadest meaning, of doing what pleases God, then it’s something we frequently encounter in the people around us, in their care for each other and our environment. We can celebrate and learn so much from how God is already at work in our community in ways that might surprise us.
The third word is a more unusual one and perhaps may be the most challenging. It’s the word Adaptability. When we encounter people who are different to us, they can often challenge our assumptions, our beliefs, our opinions and so much more. It can be uncomfortable to reflect on how we might need to adapt and change too.
Claire recently wrote a reflection for Pentecost for us in our church newsletter, referring to a book called ‘Being interrupted: reimagining the church’s mission from the outside, in.
It’s a challenging read to say the least! It looks at how it’s often through interruptions to our usual routines that we encounter God at work in our church and community.

Jesus’ own life was one of constantly being interrupted by people demanding to be fed, to be healed, or in today’s reading to be challenged about what it means to be part of God’s family. And the amazing thing is that it’s often through these interruptions that we discover so much about God at work. In today’s case the interruptions lead Jesus to challenge the idea of who is inside or outside God’s family.

It made me stop and think about how willing I would be to see this happen in our church, and I found that a very challenging thought. How much should we allow our own church routines and life to be interrupted by others? How adaptable are we to allowing the gifts and hospitality of those outside the church family to shape us in the future?

As we pray and consider our next steps as a church, what we stand for, what our mission and our life might be, I pray that we might continue to develop this sense of awareness, acceptance and adaptability so our church family would be a place of open welcome. In the words of the first hymn that we sang or heard today:

You are welcome here, come as you are.
You are welcome here, with open arms.
Bring your burdens, bring your pain,
Bring your sorrow and shame,
You are welcome here, come as you are.

 

 

Hamish Bruce                                                                                                             06/06/21