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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 Zoom Church, Reading, February 7th 2021, 2nd Sunday before Lent

 

Proverbs 8:1,22-34; Psalm 104:26-end; Colossians 1:15-20; John 1:1-14

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free

 

When Claire invited me to preach this Sunday, she asked if I could do something a bit ‘lighter’. I fought back by reminding her of the words of the great 20th Century evangelical, JI Packer: ‘Sermonettes produce Christianettes’ . But then I thought, OK, go for it. Lighter. Then I read the readings for today and wondered if Packer had risen from his eternal rest to wag his finger at me. Today’s readings are absolutely loaded with glorious, weighty content. What do I do with all of that? How do I begin? I’m sure that Packer would have magisterially laid out the great doctrines here for us to understand and grasp. But I’m not Packer, for sure. Then I read the Psalm appointed for today, 104, and began to feel better. We read it together earlier in the service. For the Psalms are prayers. They record a person’s response to this weight of glory. It’s what we do with it all. I can relate to that.

 

Can we take a moment now, and think about this: what gives me joy? What bubbles up as you ask yourself that question? I’ll hazard a guess that for maybe for a lot of people, it has something to do with the natural world: out walking, in the garden, perhaps overlooking a natural space, birds, animals, perhaps watching a David Attenborough, the dog; and then other people – partners, children, friends, – which are of course part of the natural world too. These things have the capacity to make us joyful, to lift our hearts up. Most of us will have stood looking at mountains, at the sea and sky, at magnificent trees and amazing animals and be literally lost for words, to be struck not just with joy but also with awe and wonder. The person who wrote today’s Psalm was just like that. Let me read the first few verses of Psalm 104 which we didn’t read today, where the Psalmist praises the author of all he sees:

 

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
    wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
    you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.

 

And it goes on – it’s quite a long Psalm! The thing is, the Psalmist looked at the beauty and grandeur of the creation and saw God at work. This wasn’t just an accident, a random pile of pick-up sticks. Today’s lectionary reading from Colossians (which we didn’t read) puts it like this: ‘In him all things hold together’ (Col 1:17). By him, the writer, Paul, means Christ – the eternal Christ. In today’s Proverbs reading, the author writes about wisdom, wisdom as a Person who ‘was beside Him (God) like a master craftsman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world, and delighting in the human race’ (Prov 8:30,31). In John’s gospel we read of the Word, through whom all things were created, and who took on flesh and became one with us. All four readings refer to the eternal Person, Creator, Wisdom, Master Craftsman, Word, Christ, the One who connects the dots, the invisible thread joining and holding everything together. We know that Christ dwells within us too – unworthy though we may feel – so that when our hearts are lifted up in joy or wonder, it is His work, His gift to us. Let me just say that He is equally present when our hearts are saddened or weighed down. He is there in those moments too.

 

A couple of weeks ago I spoke on the call of Samuel and linked it to the practice of the prayer of ‘Examen’, or review of the day. In this prayer, we take time to review the last period of time and see how we were moved, and then to examine what it was that produced that movement of our spirit. And then to ask, what’s the invitation here? What’s the call? Well, the Psalmist gives us his answer in verses 33,34: ‘I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord.The invitation for us as we rejoice in creation, in human relationships, in all good gifts, is the same. It is the work of our lives.

 

I would like to share with you a poem, and then a song, and then a suggestion for something to take away. Here’s the poem. It’s one that Stephen shared in his daily emails but it has cropped up before that and I think it’s printed inside one of our service sheets. It’s by Wendell Berry, the American poet, called ‘The peace of wild things’. In it, Wendell reflects on the power that the created order, what he calls ‘the grace of the world’, has to free him. It is the Creator’s touch.

 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 

The song I want to share comes, naturally enough, from Taizé. I think it’s my favourite one, and it comes with an absolutely beautiful video which I will share. I’m afraid it’s in French. Here’s the words and then the translation:

 

Ô toi, l’au-delà de tout                   You who are beyond all things

Quel esprit peut te saisir?              what mind can grasp you?

Tous les êtres te célèbrent            All that lives celebrates you

Le désir de tous aspire vers toi.   the desire of all reaches out to you.

 

This song lifts us from creation to worship. The short video takes us through a day at Taizé, from early morning, through worship, to nightfall.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_4MQtpYC_I  or https://vimeo.com/44097516

 

Thank you for listening to that, I hope you enjoyed it and found that it lifts your heart to God. The YouTube link will be in tomorrow’s MailChimp from Tanya so you can hear it again.

 

And something to do. I invite you, perhaps later today, to find 10 minutes of quiet, perhaps somewhere where you can appreciate the natural order, even if it’s raining or snowing. Sit down and be still for a couple of minutes, appreciating what is before you, leaving behind what has been occupying you. Take your bible, turn to Psalm 104 and read the whole Psalm slowly. Out loud if there’s nobody else around! Pause, and then read it again. Savour the words and enjoy them. And take that quiet moment to thank God from your own heart.

 

Richard Croft

 

 

 

 

 

Trinity-2019, by Gary S Collins

Trinity, Creating (a new world) in Community

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31,  John 16:12-15

It’s a double whammy today. As well as the church celebrating Trinity Sunday.. that apparently fearsome preaching Sunday for wary (or over-zealous) curates. It’s also Father’s Day… (happy father’s day!)

So to first wish you a happy Father’s Day I’ll begin with a suitable ‘Dad Joke’….

  • I think I want to quit my priestly job. I’d rather clean mirrors for a living.
    It’s just something I can see myself doing.
  • I did have another joke about a stone. But don’t worry, I’ll just skip that one.

Terrible aren’t they?
How about this then ‘I still have many things to say, but you cannot bear them now..’
(ok I grant you, not so funny or groan-worthy – but it does put a smile on my face. Jesus saying to the disciples, “you cannot bear this”… I mean what’s he getting at, how much have they borne already? They’ve followed this guy around for three years, they been perplexed, confused, mocked, struggled to make sense of almost anything that has come from his Galilean mouth..
I mean, “now your telling us we cant bear it?”, “we couldn’t bear it three years ago!!!”

But maybe ‘bear’ isn’t really about what the disciples can take in terms of thoughts and ideas – they’ve clearly had their fill of that. It appears that ‘bearing’ is more to do with time and context, ‘you cannot bear this now.’ (it’s not the right time)

In these two readings we catch a glimpse of the Trinity in two different ways, but in both we are invited to think about experience and not an abstract concept.
The lectionary places us back with the disciples and Jesus at the last supper, and , for the fifth time, (14:16-17, 14:26, 15:26, 16:7-11, 16:12-15), Jesus is explaining that he is to leave them…
Hold that thought for a moment, imagine yourself there, (you don’t have the full script), how do you think the disciples would have been feeling? What was the body language and mood? Would there have been tears, hurt, fear, betrayal even?

And Jesus foretells of the ‘paraclete’, the advocate, the along-side one, the Spirit.
If you want Trinity Sunday without the egg, or the clover leaf, or the ice illustration (all heresies anyway!) then this passage offers a little window on the Trinity.
Here Jesus speaks of himself, and of the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Although ‘trinity’ is not mentioned anywhere explicitly in scripture – the growing church comes to understand this in both text and in experience. (Although it would take the another 300 years to fully identify what this relationship actually meant… the same words we’ll say later in our creed)

Jesus in this instant, sitting with his anxious friends, (women and men), is trying to offer a reassurance. The advocate will come, and guide them to truth… the same truth that is ‘the way’ and ‘the life’ that Jesus has already described himself as…

Maybe through tears of his own, Jesus is pointing to the coming advocate and explaining that which cannot be understood, cannot be borne… ‘it is better that I should go’ (v.7). Then, he suggests, the Spirit will point to all truth…the truth that he is…It seems that when Jesus speaks of the paraclete; he means the things which cannot be borne until the time is right, until the need is there…

And that time will come – there will be moments when the apostles in the following years will doubt, struggle, wrestle and look for reassurance; and others times when they will discover the truth which the Holy Spirit will guide them into. In some of these moments we could imagine them remembering back to this night of tears and confusion. and begin to understand just what it was that Jesus was on about – they couldn’t bear those things then… because they didn’t need to then.. But now, as they continue in the absence of Christ in flesh and blood they do see that the love of God, the love of Christ, the love of the Spirit comes to them… so they can bear these things now; in prison, in shipwreck, in martyrdom, and in the act of co-creating a new reality.

You may find yourself this morning looking for reassurance… asking yourself can I bear my load any longer? You may find yourself—like many of us—looking fearfully into the future, with economic uncertainty, political instability and fear, and asking, ‘can I bear this?’.

We may well imagine Jesus tears too as he speaks of leaving his friends. And within those tears comes something hopeful – but also realistic.. it isn’t pie in the sky, it isn’t a denial of our present struggles, it isn’t ‘Jesus making it alright’..

Instead a simple, insistent, message is uttered about the coming helper; from the dawn of creation, (Proverbs tells us) and echoed in the words of Jesus; a rumour of hope emerges from the heart of the Godhead of love; ‘you will not be alone. You are not alone!’
Because the very foundation of all being and all time and all things – is a holy and divine relationship; a dance of loving and giving. And that love is not exclusive – but forever inclusive; it reaches out, meets us at the point where we cannot bear any more, it dances at the edges of the sea like the gloriously female wisdom in Proverbs and delights in God’s creation (Common English Bible), “I was having fun, smiling before him all the time, frolicking with his inhabited earth and delighting in the human race” (v. 30b-31).

We need to stop thinking of the Trinity as a concept to understand – we cannot! Instead we encounter that life-giving relationship within our experiences; in hope and in suffering in the tears of Christ mingling with our own tears in the passion of the Spirit in the wonder of creation and in the quest for justice. (different translations speak of architect, craftsman and even little child). The Trinity reaches out, invites us, dares us, to dance before a new creation, to be part of a new creation. How many times have you considered, fun, creativity and play to be part of God’s mission?

Well this is nice Gary, very poetic, very enticing – but how does this land? what about the millions of people suffering- what about climate change? maybe that’s what you or I feel is more than we can bear… Are we ‘dancing’, as Bruce Cockburn sang, ‘in the Dragon’s Jaws’.

Which is exactly why we dare to say that the Trinity is a deeply political revelation too. What is going on in Jesus words here, and in the experience of the early church, and in the church throughout the world and in the enticing vision of Wisdom at the beginning of a creative act .. takes Trinity from an abstract concept to a lived experience; an encounter with relationship… and relationships with real people cause us to think differently about the world.

The Trinity reminds us that the event of God—the communion of God—comes towards us. So politically, if we can say that divine love holds all together in communion, then God is in the stranger and the outsider as much as in that which we know. Divine creativity is found in art, in thought, in community, education, and in politics. Divine creativity is world-making.

God’s creative communion is insistent, but not oppressive. Wisdom calls from the streets, proverbs tells us, she ‘cries out’ to be heard… She calls for discernment.
Reflect for a moment our world of social media, fake news, infotainment, propaganda and spin… (a world our young people encounter daily). Competing narratives of how the world works.. the dominating demands of capitalism, and so on.
Yet Wisdom still calls… evokes, provokes, nudges and cajoles us into a different way of being in the world. The way of God, the way of communion.

The Trinity who comes towards us, always now, opening new ways of seeing, inviting us all to a different dance.. The invitation is for all time, not just this Sunday!

The Trinity reminds us of a God found in the one, the three and the many; God’s very being is communion, and communion with us. As wisdom dances on the shores of our uncreated futures, she reminds us, calls to us; dares us to ‘dance in the dragons jaws.’ In a world of fractures, divisions, fear and suspicion, wisdom prompts us to heal our own communities and to do so with a deep abiding joy, “delighting in the world and the people that God created”
GS Collins, June 2019

'Child' - by Jennifer Paliga and Kimberly Mcintosh

Upside Down Wisdom

Mark 9.30-37, Proverbs 31.10-end

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ActJustly

‘Act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God.’

Introduction

I wonder if there are some common phrases or words of wisdom that you or your parents often use? Here are some that might be familiar to you:

Pride comes before a fall

The early bird catches the worm

Practice makes perfect

Or you may know this more modern one:

‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ Although it originates from the story of Spiderman and the world of comics it has seeped into everyday use. I heard it used recently by Barack Obama at John McCain’s funeral.

All these proverbs try and bring together many years of human experience into a few memorable words. And in today’s sometimes crazy world, we’re in particular need of words of wisdom to help us know how we can live wisely.

Today I’m going to take the wise words of a man who lived over 700 years before Jesus, an Old Testament prophet called Micah. I’ll attempt to bring together both of today’s Bible readings and our new season of Creation into Micah’s ten words of wisdom on how we should live: Act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God.

Proverbs – Act Justly

In the Bible there’s a whole book of these short phrases of wisdom, called the book of Proverbs. In today’s first Bible reading, we heard just a small number of these. Collected like the psalms over hundreds of years, these proverbs crystallised the wisdom of that time and were offered to help people live a good life full of wisdom. The reading we had today comes from a section in Proverbs aimed at helping young people understand the proper way to live. Some of this wisdom can seem formal and traditional, as it comes from King Solomon or those writing in his style.

But if you look at the verses in today’s reading from Proverbs there’s a surprising focus, that sounds almost radical to our modern world:

Here are a few of the proverbs from today’s reading:

‘If you plant the seeds of injustice, disaster will spring up.’

‘Be generous and share your food with the poor. You will be blessed for it.’

‘Don’t take advantage of the poor just because you can; don’t take advantage of those who stand helpless in court. The Lord will argue their case for them and threaten the life of anyone who threatens theirs.’

Care for the poor and those in need isn’t seen as some kind of nicety or choice. It’s hardwired into the Israelites’ relationship with God. They care for those in need, remembering how God answered their own cries of need to bring them out of slavery in Egypt. It’s part of their theology of who God is: a Creator God who loves all equally and cares equally for all. For them, a prosperous and successful society is one that is built on fairness and justice for those in need.

So how can we act justly ourselves? How is God calling us to act in our community and in our world? There is of course plenty that we can do in caring for those we meet day by day. But how do we act wisely and justly to make an impact on some of the bigger issues facing our world? I was taken by one of the quotations Gary used in his sermon last week by the writer Alice Walker. She said that:

‘Activism is my rent for living on the planet.’

You may have heard about a report published last week by the Commission on Economic Justice. It raised how important it is to hardwire justice into our economic system rather than treating it as an afterthought. It was so encouraging to see the Archbishop of Canterbury and others taking on such simple questions as: What is a fair minimum wage? How do we treat people on zero-hours contracts fairly? What is a just way of overcoming the widening gap between rich and poor, and the fear of the future facing both young and old alike?

As Archbishop Justin Welby said:

‘It doesn’t have to be like this. By putting fairness at the heart of the economy, we can make it perform better, improving the lives of millions of people. Achieving prosperity and justice together is not only a moral imperative – it is an economic one.’

What do you feel it means for you to act justly with your family and friends, and in the wider community and world in which we live?

Love tenderly

To act justly and to love tenderly…

And so we come to our gospel reading and on the surface one of the worst examples of showing Jesus loving others tenderly. Here is a woman in great need that comes to Jesus for help to cure her daughter, falling at his feet and begging for her child to be healed. What does Jesus do? He quotes a proverb at her that says: ‘Let us first feed the children. It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

I have to admit that I’ve struggled a lot with this passage over the years.

Now, I know that Jesus was talking about how his priority was to bring the good news to Jews first before the Gentiles and I know it’s dangerous to put our modern sensibilities into a situation from a different time and culture, but this isn’t what I would expect of Jesus. I just can’t understand how the Jesus I know from the rest of the Bible could treat someone in this way. I find it almost impossible to respect a leader who calls someone a dog and dehumanises them. This seems totally out of keeping with the Jesus I know in the rest of the Bible.

And so I took my struggles with this passage to one of my wise cousins, who is both a priest and an expert in New Testament Greek and asked for his help.

First of all, we have to understand that Jesus isn’t using the Greek word ‘kunarion’ or dog here at all but ‘kunis’, closer to the word for puppy. He’s deliberately taking some of the sting out of the original proverb. But something deeper is happening here as well and relates to why Jesus is using a proverb. Rabbis, or teachers of Jesus’ time, encouraged their disciples to challenge proverbs they’d inherited and to help them reflect on what was true and wise for their own times. Proverbs were not expected to be treated as infallible words of truth but to be debated, discussed and applied to how we live today.

The problem with proverbs is that they don’t always age well. What used to be relevant to one generation can sound dangerously outdated to the next. I won’t mention some of the worst examples I was brought up with, as their language is truly shocking. One I really dislike as someone who is working now in adult education is this one: ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. It may have some truth in it, but I’ve often seen it used as a way to limit the potential of more mature people, or as an excuse by those who are older not to learn new things.

And sometimes proverbs can completely change their meaning. Here’s an old saying you might have heard before:

‘It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.’

Sounds almost rude doesn’t it? But it wasn’t intended as such. In the olden days a brass monkey was a type of rack in which cannon balls were stored. Being brass, the monkey or rack contracted in cold weather and pushed out the cannonballs. The meaning and relevance of proverbs can shift over time.

And so here, in front of his other disciples, Jesus begins treating the Syrophoenician woman as if she was one of them, throwing out a proverb for her to discuss with him as teacher to disciple. He loves her so tenderly that he gives her the opportunity to debate this proverb with him, and to demonstrate her faith in front of all the others.

Jesus is yet again breaking down the barriers between who is seen as In and who is Out in his kingdom. It is not only one of the first stories in the gospels to show Jesus’ love for Gentiles as well as Jews, but also one of the first to show how he will break down the traditional wisdom on who is clean and unclean. He shows a new wisdom, that God’s love is for all and for all equally.

To walk humbly with your God

To act justly, to love tenderly and finally to walk humbly with our God.

So how does our new church season of creation fit in with the words of wisdom that we should walk humbly with our God?

This lies in the origins of the word humility itself. It comes from the word ‘humus’. This sounds the same, but is very different from, that delicious Middle-Eastern and Greek food. It means earth or compost, from the ground. So to walk humbly with God is to remember, with every step we take, that we are of the earth – mortal, not divine. In this Season of Creation we are grounded in the reality that we are here for only a few short years, just a small part of God’s creation that will continue long after we have died. But although our time is limited, we have the hope through Jesus that this is only the beginning of our journey.

And it’s not a journey that we are meant to take alone. There’s a popular proverb, probably from Africa, that says:

If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

And the church should be part of this family that supports us as we learn to go further with God. We travel together to learn how to live as God intended: to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with our God.

Hamish Bruce