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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

 

 

 

 

 

waiting picture

MARCH 29th – Psalm 30: How long to sing this song?

As you have read or listened to Psalm 130 – what word or phrase speaks strongly to you right now? What rings true to how you feel, or to your own situation?

I’d like to share some brief thoughts on three of the words or phrases in this psalm and how they might speak to us in the times we live in. In almost all societies around the world you’ll find three kinds of songs – there are lullabies, songs for weddings and laments. Today we are going to look at Psalm 130, one of the so-called Psalms of Lament. These songs have been used for hundreds of years to help people navigate through personal or national suffering. I hope you will find these thoughts helpful as we navigate our own unique situation.

Out of the depths

The first is the extraordinary phrase we read at the beginning of the psalm: ‘Out of the depths’ – ‘Out of the depths I cry to you’. It comes from the Latin phrase ‘De Profundis’ and is from where we get our English word profound. Many poets from Lord Tennyson and Christina Rossetti to Federico Garcia Lorca have been inspired by these words and written poems entitled De Profundis. For some of us, we might be feeling (or might later feel) a profound sense of loss, despair and anguish. For me it’s the basic things that I took for granted that I miss and long for: being able to hug my sons and my parents, playing music with my friends, sharing the peace and communion with my church family.

The laments remind us that we can be honest in how we feel, to God and with each other. It’s a cry out to God as we struggle to live with unanswered questions and unexplained suffering. I find it soothing that within the Bible we are given words that can be shockingly brutal and brutally honest in expressing how we feel to God.

 

I’ve recently been reading a book on the psalms called ‘It’s ok to be not ok’. It’s written by a Philippine Christian who was caught up in 2009 in Tropical Storm Ondoy, where over 700 lost their lives. He speaks of how he went to church the next Sunday and was struck by how the church had no songs to help express the grief the congregation were feeling. There were many ‘happy’ songs of praise and thanksgiving sung, but he went away with the question ‘Why is there nothing in our worship about what we have experienced?’ The theologian Walter Brueggemann in his book The Psalm & The Life of Faith calls it ‘the costly loss of lament’. If we are not allowed to lament, then all we have in times of trouble is an empty celebration of joy and well-being, completely disconnected from our present reality. The lament states that things are not right, that they should not be as they are now, and that there is a longing and hope they won’t remain so forever. They are a plea to God for help in a time of intense trial. They also suggest perhaps controversially, it is God’s obligation to change things.  ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord: O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.’

Waiting

The second word that stood out for me is the word ‘wait’. It’s perhaps not surprising, as it’s repeated five times in just two sentences: ‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.’

There is one question that is repeated time and time again in the lament psalms: How long? How long must this go on?’ In this psalm there’s a sense of yearning and longing that you can see in how the psalmist repeats that phrase ‘more than watchmen wait for the morning’. A longing we may feel as we yearn for an end to this isolation.

You might have read a Facebook post by our vicar Claire on Wednesday, celebrating the feast of the Annunciation – when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was to be with child and to give birth to a son, called Jesus. Alongside the painting of Botticelli’s Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, Claire posted these words:

‘Today the Church marks the Annunciation by the angel to the Blessed Virgin Mary – I guess because today is exactly 9 months till Christmas Day and that’s the length of a pregnancy. The planting of a seed, in silence and obscurity, that will bear the most amazing fruit later. I’m wondering today about how this could be a message of hope for us in these weird and difficult times when we just want it all to be over as soon as possible. But it’s always in the waiting that we grow, and then always (and only) through great love and great suffering, such as Mary underwent.

It’s always in the waiting that we grow, and then always (and only) through great love and great suffering, such as Mary underwent.

Hope

The third word that stood out for me in this psalm is ‘hope’.

You might have noticed this word appears twice in the psalm.

‘I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I put my hope.’

And then the focus at the end of the psalm in the words:

‘O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.’

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself often waking up early in the morning, just before dawn and being amazed by the sound of the birds heralding in the new dawn. There are signs of hope around us, in the natural world, in the kindness of friends and strangers, in the amazing work of our NHS and front-line services. But, of course, the greatest hope we have is in our Lord that we serve. In our gospel reading we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus. I was particularly struck in reading this next to Psalm 130 how Jesus embodies the answer to the lament – that Jesus experienced the sorrow and pain of loss and the longing for it all to change. In him, God has come alongside us. In him there is hope through this pain and the hope of a resurrection of our world from our present sorrows.

I pray for all of us that we would encounter this living God of hope in whatever we encounter in these coming weeks – in the depths, in the waiting and in the hope that is to come.

Keep us, good Lord,

under the shadow of your mercy

in this time of uncertainty and distress.

Sustain and support the anxious and fearful,

and lift up all who are brought low;

that we may rejoice in your comfort

knowing that nothing can separate us from your love

in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.

Hamish Bruce – Sunday March 29th 2020

Stac Pollaidh, Scottish Highlands

A song for our times – Psalm 121

I wonder what is one of the most romantic things you have done in your life? For me it relates to this object… a tape cassette!  I was once keen on a girl who was spending a year travelling around the world. To show my interest in her I created a mixed tape of all the songs that she had been missing as she travelled. I then sent it to her parents so the tape would be given to her when she got off the plane back in the UK. It seems to have worked well, as we’ve now been married for almost 30 years!
Nowadays we have moved beyond mixed tapes and you may have used services like Spotify to create playlists of songs meaningful to you that can then be shared with the whole world.

Today we’re going to look at a mixed tape or playlist that was specially created and crafted for us over hundreds of years and one particular song from it. As we look at this ancient song collection, called the book of Psalms, we’ll briefly look at how they can still be meaningful to us as we pray and worship together.

Within this collection of 150 Psalms there’s a mini-collection called the Songs of Ascents. These songs, Psalms 120-134, existed as a separate collection for some time, but were brought into the larger collection pretty much untouched and in their entirety. It’s like doing a mixed tape or playlist of the songs of Elton John and including the whole of his album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. These songs of ascents were used both in major religious ceremonies and sung by pilgrims as they journeyed to Jerusalem. Within these Song of Ascents is Psalm 121, one of the highlights of the collection. Today we’ll look at how this is a song for our times and one that can be deeply relevant for all of us.  I’d like to do this, if I may, by sharing with you three different journeys I have taken over the years up the same hill – my favourite hill, that of Stac Pollaidh, up in the Scottish Highlands.

Screenshot 2019-10-17 at 10.29.23

Many years ago when I was in my twenties, I was travelling on a hot Sunday afternoon with a group of friends in the Highlands, when we spotted this majestic hill called Stac Pollaidh.
We couldn’t resist attempting to climb it. And so we set off with no map, no proper footwear – and headed straight up to the summit. We had no idea how hard the climb might be or what we might see when we reached the top, but there was excitement and a little trepidation as we headed up the hill. And what a view we saw on that clear day! It’s one of the most beautiful views in the world, stretching out over the Assynt lochans and hills on one side and out to the sea on the other. It was a fantastic experience and an amazing journey.

Psalm 121 is a song for the beginning of a journey. In traditional Jewish families, this psalm is often inscribed on an amulet and given to an expectant mother, to prepare her for the birth. And in the birthing room, the words of Psalm 121 are mounted on the wall as the first words for the new mother and child to see at the beginning of their life’s journey together.
And through the years, many people have used it as a prayer before they start on some new journey in their lives. Some Christians use it as a prayer before they travel on a long journey, others before they go into hospital for a major operation, or when they are starting a new job.
Speaking of which… we do have someone in our congregation who has just started a new job. And so for you Claire, for Chris and all your family, we’d like to dedicate this song to you! And in the words of the psalm, we pray that God would be your keeper, to protect and guide you throughout your time here at St John and St Stephen.

Well, that first journey up Stac Pollaidh was such a success that we decided to return there a few years later. But the second trip was very different. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Scottish word ‘dreich’. It describes a dreary, gloomy, dark day, usually cold and with horizontal rain. And so we travelled up Stac Pollaidh in a deep mist, hardly able to see the path, feeling miserable and wet. And of course at the top all we could see were small glimpses of hills, emerging through the fog and rain. We knew that the beautiful view existed somewhere on that dreich day, but it was difficult to be anything but gloomy about it.

Often we face day, weeks or even years where we can feel as if we’re part of such a journey, and that the fog has drifted us off course. When I left University, I was convinced that God was calling me to either be a priest or a teacher. I twice tried for the ministry and was turned down both times. And it took me eight years as a teacher to realise this wasn’t the right path for me. Now, I am so grateful for the journey I’ve been on since then, the people I’ve met and the amazing projects I’ve taken a small part in. I have never been more content than where I am, now. But for a number of years I felt I had failed God, my family and myself.

Reading Psalm 121 at a glance, it can appear that this psalm is a song of certainty, that God won’t let anything harm us. But this isn’t the purpose of the psalm. For those original pilgrims that sung it as they journeyed to Jerusalem, it was a cry for help and for reassurance. The journey to Jerusalem was incredibly dangerous. It was highly lucrative for bandit gangs to attack, injure or kill pilgrims on their journey, as it is to this day. I had a friend, James, who was the bass guitarist in my first ever band and lived down the road from me. At 20 years old, he set off to travel to Tibet to meet with his girlfriend. Sadly, he never returned. His body was found amongst the hills where he’d camped, beaten and left for dead by robbers.

And so for these pilgrims, when they looked to the hills all they could often sense was danger: ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where does my help come?’ The rest of the psalm is a prayer to balance this fear, to remember how God is with us still –  our watcher, our friend and our guide through all that we face. The Hebrew word ‘shomer’ or keeper is repeated time and time again in the psalm, to remind us of this fact. ‘he who keeps you will not slumber… The Lord is your keeper… The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.’
In the extraordinary world in which we live, we seem to be living in ‘dreich’ times. But through the present crazy political situation, the overwhelming demands we face individually and as a community, God remains the watcher and keeper for us all.

Recently, I returned once again to climb Stac Pollaidh, and discovered a significant change. The route had become so popular that they had prevented people climbing directly to the summit. Instead, you have to walk around the base of the hill to the other side, climb up a longer but less steep incline and come back down the same route. As a result, the view emerges gradually as you climb up the far side of the hill and you are much more likely to be travelling with others during your journey.

For the original pilgrims to Jerusalem, they too gained great comfort and safety in travelling as a group. Together they faced all the challenges of the journey and of course they all sang together. You might have noticed that all our songs today are based on Psalm 121. You may also have noticed that the original Psalms don’t use rhymes like our modern songs do, but instead repeat words and thoughts to give strong rhythm and movement through the song. This is called parallelism and this psalm has a good example of step parallelism as we’ve seen in the repetition of the word ‘keeper’. It’s almost a marching song that you can imagine the pilgrims singing wearily again and again on their long journey towards Jerusalem.

Singing the psalms as the congregation here at St John and St Stephen helps us to share this reassurance that we are travelling on this same journey of faith that other pilgrims like us have trodden over thousands of years. The same God remains as our protector and helper throughout this journey. And even though the journey can be tough and relentless at times, we are here as a community to support each other along the way. There is an old African proverb that says: ‘If you want to walk fast, go alone. If you want to go far, walk together.’

Wherever you are on your own journey of faith, I pray that you may continue to know God as your keeper, your friend and your guide. In the words of Psalm 121:
I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in,
from this time on and for evermore.
Amen

Photographs by Angus Bruce at http://highlandpix.co.uk/

baptism

Baptism and a New Way of Seeing

Baptism Sermon – Mark 9.38-end, Psalm 124

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jesus appears frustrated – he’s certainly emphatic!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which means we all face a choice…

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

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

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

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

 

GS Collins

 

 

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.