StJohn&StStephens-logo

series-r

The Wisdom of Jesus

16th September 2018, Creation 3

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Croft

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Un-Clean-pic

Un/clean – dreaming beyond the borders which kill.

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

 

Sermon – 2 September 2018. 1st Sunday of Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And sadly that includes the church too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary S Collins

Silence

‘Silence! Shut up!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Richard Croft

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

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

Mark 4.26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice the end of the sentence: in a field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Laynesmith

 

 

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

Malcolm Harland, 2018

Easter Sunday – The Tale of Three Unfinished Tales

A Talk for Family Communion, Mark 16.

 

“The Garden looks so beautiful this morning…”

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

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

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

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

I’ve been reminded about three stories this week;

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

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

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

Isn’t it?

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

Isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

 

GS Collins 1 April 2018

 

red-palms

Palm Sunday and an unseen turn of events.

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

Anticipation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blindness. Three predictions. Take up your cross. Blindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living beyond ourselves. Not masochism.

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

Selfhood and Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Picture Credit – Tracey Emin at her exhibition “Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’/JMW Turner” at Turner Contemporary, Margate. 13 October 2017 – 14 January 2018. Photo: Stephen White, courtesy Turner Contemporary.
Mark 1vv9-15 180218 Repent

Repent – Lent 1

Lent 1 – Mark 19-15: Repent

It was the festival of St Valentine Day on Wednesday, but also Ash Wednesday.  St. Valentinus appears to have had no special connection to romantic love, but Chaucer connected his saint’s day on 14th February with birds mating in Spring, and it all seems to have gone from there.  Having Valentine’s Day coincide with the start of Lent is fortunately rare (the last time was 1945), given the incongruity between lavishing chocolate and flowers on your partner and giving things up to enter a season of penance.  It will probably not surprise you to hear that I am going to be talking more about repentance than romance.  (It certainly will not surprise Rachel.)

In our gospel reading today in Mark, we have Jesus baptised by John, his temptation in the wilderness, and the start of his ministry; all in seven terse verses.  But these stories also appear in the other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, so we have quite a bit more detail.  In Matthew, John tries not to baptise Jesus, saying that Jesus should baptise him.  Matthew and Luke both describe the tempter’s attempts to lead Jesus astray: turning stones into bread, throwing himself of the temple, worshipping the devil.  John’s gospel has Jesus coming to John, and the Spirit descending on him, but does not mention the baptism, or the temptation.  But John’s gospel is different.

Note, in passing, the reference to the Trinity after the baptism.  The Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, the Father speaks to Jesus as his Son.

John the Baptist’s reservations over baptising Jesus seem entirely reasonable.  John had told the crowds After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit (17-8).  John’s ministry was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (14).  The church has always understood that Jesus was without sin (see Heb. 4, 2 Cor. 521, 1 Pet. 222), tempted as we are, but without giving in.  So why did Jesus need to be baptised?

It is firstly a public anointing for his ministry.  This is what John the Baptist was for.  From his miraculous conception, to the events around his birth, his austere lifestyle, and his ministry of baptism all led up to this moment.  Prepare the way of the Lord.  After this, Jesus took over.  A little later, Jesus quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me (Lk 418).  The Spirit descending in the form of a dove signifies Jesus gentleness, purity, innocence.

It is secondly a sign, to John, to those who would be his followers (there were no disciples yet, that came later), and to the world generally, that Jesus was chosen by God.  And an encouragement for Jesus too?  We do not know whether Jesus was so sure of his calling, so sure of his relationship with the Father, that he did not need encouragement.  But if he shared our humanity, with its doubts and uncertainties, you would think he might.  I think of the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus clearly did need support.  The last time I gave a sermon here it was about the Transfiguration, and I thought then that part of the purpose of that event was to strengthen Jesus as he prepared for the cross.  So perhaps the voice from heaven was for Jesus too.

Thirdly, in accepting this ceremony, Jesus identified with man’s sin and failure.  Without sin, but knowing what it was to be tempted, to have weakness, to live in a society with sin around him.  Baptism was for cleansing, a declaration of purity, resolve to be better.  Jesus emerged clean, and pure, and ready to deal with sin.

Lent is a season of reflection, of penance, of preparation for Easter.  What does penance make you think of?  [3] [4]  We were in Canterbury last week, hearing again the story of Thomas à Becket.  Childhood friend and close ally of Henry II, made Chancellor of England, he was appointed by Henry Archbishop of Canterbury to subdue the church.  But he changed, saying he was no longer the king’s man, but God’s.  He would wear a horse-hair shirt to mortify the flesh and bring himself closer to God.  It is a sort of penance we are not familiar with, nor do we generally think it a healthy sort of spirituality.  People do give things up for Lent, take on extra prayer or meditation or study.

Repentance has always been fundamental to Christian faith.  In the Book of Common prayer, you would start a service with the General Confession: …We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.  We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.  We have offended against thy holy laws.  We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.  More evangelical churches still introduce people to faith with the ABC:  Admit your sin, Believe in Jesus, Confess him as your saviour.  More recently it is not something we like to put so much stress on.  Even the words are somewhat old-fashioned.  Sin is not really a concept that is in regular use.  I actually prefer selfishness, which I think is the nearest word that is in use.  Thinking of yourself first, whether before others or God.  A temptation is used more about chocolate or having a piece of cake than the stark choice between right and wrong.

There are good reasons for avoiding talking about repentance.  It can be pretty off-putting if, entering a church, among the first things you hear are that you are miserable sinner.  It is not the most attractive advertisement for Christianity to have to admit your failings before you can go any further.

But it is still fundamental, however uncomfortable.  It is actually freeing.  It may not be the start of faith, which is often to do with coming to understand about the love of God, of his unconditional care for you.  That Jesus went on from his baptism to proclaim the gospel, the Good News of God’s Kingdom.  He took his unselfishness to the point of dying for us, becoming the ultimate sacrifice, the Lamb of God, as in this extraordinary painting, Agnus Dei by Francisco Zubaray.  It is a poetic way of showing what Jesus did for us

So we are invited to come to God in repentance knowing that God will still accept us, whatever.  His love, like that of the best parent, is totally unconditional.  Whatever it is we have done, whoever we have become, whatever we are like, we are loved.  You can get over it.  You can change.  God wants you to come back to him and allow him to change you.

Picture credit – Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Duccio Di Buoninsegna

 

series-21

Deliver us from evil

Epiphany 4, Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Mark 1:21-28

This morning we read in the gospel of an encounter between Jesus and a man gripped by evil. How will that speak to us? The first chapter of Mark’s gospel throws us headlong into the beginning of the three years of Jesus’ ministry, three years that literally changed the world. From his baptism by John, where the heavens are ‘torn apart’ (10), the Spirit ‘drove him out into the wilderness’ (12) where he was tempted by Satan, on to choosing his first disciples, then into a synagogue where he encounters a man with an ‘unclean spirit’.

I want to open this passage up, loose it from the corner of Mark’s gospel it is hiding in. Because it is echoing, if we have ears to hear, the early chapters of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and it has a surprising message for us today. First, back to Genesis. It’s just worth saying that the first few chapters of the Bible are essential reading for understanding the rest of it. Here goes. The first 3 chapters of Genesis give an account of the creation of the earth, the sun, moon and stars, and all the orders of plants and animals including humanity in the form of Adam and Eve. Just so you know, I’m not inclined to treat these chapters as literal, historical truth but I am inclined to say that what they tell us about God, the world and humanity are profoundly true: that is, they are full of meaning. In Genesis 2, God places the first couple in a beautiful garden and tells them, pretty much, that they can do and eat anything they like but don’t eat from that tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Genesis 3, the serpent, representing the powers of evil, Satan or the devil, worms his way into Eve’s confidence, questions what God has said, then lies to her and convinces her to try the fruit of exactly that tree. She does, and shares it with her husband, Adam. Suddenly their eyes are opened. They know that they are naked, and are immediately ashamed of their new knowledge, of what they have done. They hide, hide from God, or try to. But their nakedness is much more than physical, it is spiritual. Before, they had nothing to hide from God, now they have disobedience to hide, now they know evil as well as good where before they did not, they are confused and shamed. In the next few chapters of Genesis there is a steady degeneration into more and more evil as almost everyone chooses not the path of the good, but the path of the bad. The word for devil in Greek is diabolos, from where we get the word ‘double’. Double paths. A choice. Adam and Eve took the wrong path, the double path, the diabolos path, and it didn’t turn out well. Almost all the time, humanity has followed the same path, full of the knowledge of good and evil. It leads to violence, death, deceit, hiding. Unfortunately, it is all too true.

 

It’s often said of Jesus that he was ‘sinless’. I find that a bit of a sterile word, even boring, and anyway, defining someone by a negative – he was ‘without sin’ is odd. Better, and truer, to say that here was a man who took the right path, who lived the life intended by God, who lived life in all its fullness, who was true in the sense that he was straight, and right, and good. When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he resisted the temptations and emerged the victor. Where Adam and Eve failed the test, took the other way, the double path, Jesus did not. Boring, sterile – never. The opposite. Full of life. A man who turned water into wine at a wedding party when everyone was drunk already. A man who healed the sick. A man who was angry enough to drive the money-lenders out of the temple. A man who told stories so powerful that we still talk about them today. A man unafraid to call out injustice. A man who wouldn’t countenance evil. A man everyone wanted to know. Good isn’t boring. The devil doesn’t have all of the best tunes.

 

And then, in Mark 1:21, he walks into a synagogue in Capernaum and teaches. And everyone is astonished. But this man is unlike any other. He is, as we have already said, walking straight and true, he has already faced down the powers of evil and declined the invitation to walk the path paved with what we might call ‘alternative facts’, the lies and half-truths that, if attended to, would have led him to failure and ultimately, to evil. And in the synagogue, the place of worship and prayer, of scripture reading, of community (in other words, a lot like church!) a man with an unclean spirit, seeing and hearing him, cries out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ (24). I was wondering what provoked the outburst, and I thought that perhaps Jesus, in his teaching in the synagogue, opened up the particular evil the man was gripped by – he named it. We don’t know what the particular form of evil the man was engaged in, but you can imagine that if you’re hiding something terrible, you might blurt out the truth if someone put his finger on it.

 

What is happening here? How can we understand this? One way of doing so, which is probably the literal way of understanding, is that the man was possessed by an unclean, or evil spirit. If we were living in parts of the world outside of the so-called enlightened West, that is exactly how it would be understood. Certainly, when we lived in Bangladesh, there was strong belief in evil spirits and their powers amongst all the religious communities – Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Animist. That may be the way some of us here would understand it, or some might struggle with that view. So I would like to say, this man was possessed by evil. In some way, he had given in to evil, to the double path, in such a way that it had eaten him up, he was overcome by it. The non-Western way of understanding this would be to say that he had opened himself to evil so much that a spirit of evil, a demon had entered him so that he no longer had any power at all to resist. He was in the grip of evil. I’m afraid that all of us are infected by evil in some way, we all have the capacity to do wrong, to hurt or destroy – and we sometimes do – but this man was in a special category. What is evil? It’s whatever destroys or diminishes life or the creation.

 

One of they really important things to notice here is that this man was in the synagogue. In whatever way his particular involvement with evil was expressed, he sought and found cover within his religious community. This has the ring of truth. Religious communities – including the Christian church of course – have often given cover for evil and there’s a long history of that right up to the present day. We only have to think of the sexual scandals that have been uncovered in the last few decades within the church, and the ruined lives of the victims that have resulted.

 

Again, this man’s evil was hidden within the synagogue, the religious community. Evil is often hidden, covered up. Think of the way that the horrible sex scandals in the church had been hidden from view. There is another echo here of the Adam and Eve story, where they both tried to hide from God after their disobedience, their eating of the fruit of the tree of good and evil. But this man, or if you like the spirit of evil within him, recognised in Jesus someone who was profoundly good, deeply and truly un-evil so that when he encountered him, as he heard his teaching he couldn’t help himself from shouting and in fact outing Jesus as the person that he truly was: the Holy One of God. In fact, the evil came out of hiding because it could not hide from this man. Once the evil was revealed, its hold over the man was lost and Jesus was able to expel it and restore the man.

 

Phew. This has been a tough sermon to prepare and hard to deliver. Am I coming up against evil within me that doesn’t want to be exposed? I don’t know. But the question is now, what do we do with it? I’m not proposing that we begin hunting down evil within our church or start rehearsing scenes from the Exorcist. And we’re none of us Jesus. But, we take his name and we are his followers. There’s a lovely verse in Hebrews that says ‘Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters’ (Heb 2:11). We too will encounter evil. There is plenty of it loose in the world. There is the institutional evil of big corporations that exploit both the environment and communities simply for profit. There is massive social injustice across the world and in our own country, suppression of human rights, discrimination against all sorts of people based on nothing more than ethnic origin, religion, educational levels, gender and sexuality. There is wholescale war going on against the environment, the created order. There is large-scale sexual abuse against women and children: trafficking, endemic rape in some cultures, the sexual abuse of children. That may seem a long way from that synagogue in Capernaum but really, it’s individual evil writ large: greed, lust, contempt for human life, treating the world like it’s a shop with a broken window waiting to be raided. It’s what happens when individual evil goes unchecked. Then there’s evil closer to home. Women and men, made in the image of God, sleeping rough in Broad Street. And then there’s individual evil. I have met a couple of people in my life who literally made my flesh creep, whose cold disdain of humanity and greed for personal gain was like a negative spiritual force field around them. These are people who have gone far down that ‘other way’, that double path, people who have chosen lives that in some way deny the fullness of life to others and ruined their own souls too.

 

What I have tried to do in this sermon is to talk about what we don’t often talk about in church, of evil. To take it out of hiding, to try and understand where it comes from and what it does. Our following of Jesus will mean both that we will become more aware of evil, and also that evil will become aware of us, just as the man in the synagogue recognised Jesus for who he was. We probably won’t be loved much for standing up for some of the things I have mentioned, for calling out evil when we encounter it. But that shouldn’t stop us doing it. In the Lord’s prayer we pray, ‘Deliver us from evil’ and that is our prayer.

 

 

 

 

series-r

Advent 2 – The dark night of John the Baptist

Advent 2 – Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

John the Baptist

John the Baptist bursts blazing onto the scene as recorded in the first few verses of the gospel of Mark. ‘A shout goes up in the desert: Make way for the Lord! Clear a straight path for him!’ (v3). He’s like an old-time fire-and-brimstone revivalist, strong on sin and repentance, confident in his message, calling sinners forward for baptism and the start of a new life. Here’s a sample to get us in the mood: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’ (Matt 3:7) He was effective, too: we read that the whole of Judaea, and everyone who lived in Jerusalem went out to him – it was revival, a mass movement on a grand scale. A clear message, certainty is so compelling, it has a hypnotic power. People – including us – will do anything for certainty, anything to keep the uncertainties and doubts away. Dressed in camel-hair clothes, feeding on locusts and honey he had an appearance and a way of life that matched well his uncompromising, strident message. But along with the call to repent and begin again was another message, the message of advent: someone else is coming who is much greater than I am. Look, I baptise with water: but he will baptise with the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist was the messenger, the forerunner, the herald of the coming Messiah, Jesus. Get ready!

 

There’s a key word buried in the gospel reading that’s strongly associated with John and in fact with many prophets and strong preachers. It’s this: repent. I wonder what that word does for you? Anything? Leave behind a life of sin? Do you find it a rather heavy word, loaded with guilt? Does that actually help you? I’m guessing no. I received a lightbulb moment this week when someone pointed out that the ‘pent’ part of the word means ‘think’. This will be obvious to anyone speaking a Romance language: in French, to think is penser, in Spanish pensar, in Italian pensare. In English we get our word ‘pensive’ meaning thoughtful, from this root. ‘Repent’ means to ‘re-think’, to think again. That sense of the word reflects well the word in Greek lying behind it, metanoia – which broadly means this: go beyond the mind you have. John called people to think again. Think again about how you are living your lives, yes: but think again about how history is panning out before your very eyes. One is coming who is going to up-end all your thoughts about God, about life: I am not worthy to squat down and undo his sandals, he is so great. I baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Spirit of God.

 

This is all great stuff, energising and full of hope. I suspect that John, like many of his compatriots, thought that the coming of Jesus the Messiah would herald in such an age of renewal that the old order would be overturned – the occupying Romans turned out, the kingdom restored, a return to the golden days of David the King with their enemies on the run. As is often the case, it didn’t turn out like that. Jesus was a teacher like none other. He did not seek power in any human way – by political or military means. He healed the sick, taught about making peace with the Romans, turning the other cheek, non-violence, reaching out to lepers and the dead. Meanwhile, John carried on with his message of black-and-white certainty, calling out the ruler, Herod, for taking his brother’s wife, Herodias. Was it any surprise that he got banged up in prison? Not at all. And in prison, deprived of his wilderness pulpit, in silence, confronted with his own thoughts he found that doubt, uncertainty was gnawing inside him. Had he got this right? Jesus wasn’t turning out to be the Messiah he had thought. And why was he, John, the prophet sent before him, in prison? Had he got it all wrong? Was God in this at all? And so he sent a messenger to Jesus to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ (Matt 11:2,3). Jesus answered him by telling him, through the messenger, what he was doing and to compare it with what he knew from the scriptures about the coming Messiah. Jesus invited John to re-think, to change his mind, to repent, to go beyond his ideas of what Messiah should be. It was exactly what John had been telling people to do as he started his ministry, proclaiming a baptism of re-thinking.

 

I have struggled with understanding John as I came to prepare this sermon. As I read the gospel passage I only saw the strident, certain prophet. But as I reflected more on his life, I came to see a more human figure. One whose hopes – the certainty that he preached with – did not work out in the way he expected. Whose fearless preaching got him into trouble, where perhaps more circumspection would have avoided it. One who doubted, who had to ask the question that was plaguing him: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

 

I was very fortunate that when I came to faith as a teenage schoolboy, I was influenced and taught by some remarkable people at the church I attended. I owe a great debt to them. But I remember one time talking about doubt with one of the clergy. He remarked, holding an open Bible, ‘I used to have doubts, but I don’t any more’. That stuck with me as an ideal I should aspire to, so that when doubts about my faith did surface during my years at university, I felt doubly bad. Since then I have learned to live with doubt, to acknowledge it and recognise it as an essential part of my faith journey. Fast forward to this year, while walking in Portugal Rosemary and I met two women, friends, one Scottish and one English. I fell in to talking with the Scot and we shared stories about our families and our faith. She confessed to finding it hard to keep believing in God’s goodness when she experienced a personal tragedy but felt she had to just ignore her doubts and keep believing, wasn’t that what we were supposed to do? I gently pushed that back, speaking about doubt as something we all have, that it’s not wrong. That ‘certainty’ can actually be a bad thing because when we’re certain, we can’t listen. We can’t listen to ourselves, or other people, or in fact to what God Himself is speaking to us. So much pain in our world comes from people who are ‘certain’. I’m putting inverted commas around ‘certain’ to indicate that there will always be a shadow side of doubt there, whose unacknowledged presence will make us shout all the louder. That when we are ‘certain’, there is no room for faith – it is just not necessary. Anne Lamott, the author writes that: ‘The opposite of faith is not doubt: it is certainty’. I gave that quote with the Scottish lady. It gave her permission to leave behind her false certainty, which wasn’t certainty anyway and realise that we can’t know everything. It lifted a burden from her.

 

Doubts, or questions, may take many shapes and forms. We may have doubts at a very basic level about our faith: is it really true? Does God actually exist? How can God be good when there is such pain in the world? How can God be good when someone I love just died? We may have doubts at a more personal level: doubts about ourselves, fears that we are not who we seem, doubts that anyone can love me, let alone God. And there’s a temptation, in the face of messages planted deep within us, to ignore the questions and the doubts, pretending they are not there. It’s like trying to bury something that’s alive. It may indeed have been like that for John the Baptist, even as he was calling people to repentance and pointing to Jesus as ‘the One who is to come’.

 

It’s possible to see that John the Baptist was on a kind of spiritual journey as he travelled from that blinding certainty at the outset of his ministry down to a different man a few years later, stripped of his role as preacher, stripped of everything, pretty much, facing an uncertain future and facing too the internal doubts and questions about his mission: have I got it right? Have I made a huge mistake? The Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr speaks of the two halves of the spiritual life. The first half when we build our containers, build the framework of our lives, often with rules, certainties, confidence. Then something happens to us, often in middle age but can be at any time, when tragedy, crisis or illness strikes and the container breaks, the certainties are gone (which is what happened to John when he found himself arrested and in prison). And then what you’re left with is what was in the container and you learn to live with that without the false reassurance of so-called certainty. We might call that process repentance –that is, re-thinking, going beyond the old mindset. What emerges then is faith.

 

You will notice that I haven’t actually answered any doubts. That’s not the point. There is actually no such thing about complete certainty about anything. We may find some doubts can be addressed and answered: some can’t. Again, the space between our doubts and our convictions (to use a different word) is where faith lives. Or maybe a better word is trust.

 

So as we journey through the season of Advent, let us reflect on John the Baptist as he points us to Christ, as we wait for His coming into the world. Let us see and hear John, the powerful and charismatic preacher, calling men and women to re-think their lives, signalling the coming of Christ and himself baptising him in the Jordan river. But let’s not just see him as a two-dimensional figure, locked into the image of the fierce and certain preacher. His certainties were, in time, broken open and he had to go through his own repentance, his re-thinking as the Messiah he imagined turned out to be the wrong one, as he had to re-form his mind. Perhaps this is a time to face our own doubts and fears, to re-think our faith. John’s expression of his own certainties and doubts is contained within the gospel story: the gospel, the good news has space to hold them.

Richard Croft