Saturday, 30 June 2018

Two healings - one grace

2 Corinthians 8: 7-15    Mark 5: 21-43

Let’s just think about the Gospel reading for a moment from the point of view of Jairus.

Jairus is one of the leaders of the synagogue and he comes to find Jesus. We’re not sure exactly where Jesus is when this story is told, but he is somewhere in Galilee, because Mark tells us he and the disciples have crossed back over the Lake, back to the West.

Jairus’s daughter, who is only 12, is desperately ill.
Jairus has heard that Jesus – the strange local lad, who seems to be some sort of rabbi and healer - is back in the area, so he goes and finds him. He falls at his feet, begging him repeatedly to come and heal his daughter.
He must be filled with joy when Jesus agrees to come with him and they set off towards his house.
There is a crowd, Jairus wishes they’d get out of the way – there’s not a moment to lose. Then Jesus stops! And starts asking who touched him.

A woman comes forward and admits it was her – she was bleeding, she was unclean, but she was desperate and has touched Jesus’ clothes to receive healing.
And Jesus even speaks to her “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Then  - disaster ! – people come from the house to tell Jairus that his daughter is dead and he should not trouble Jesus any further.
How must he have felt at that moment – Jesus has delayed talking to this miserable woman, and now my daughter is dead!
But Jesus insists on carrying on to the house – even thought it is clearly too late – and he tells Jairus “not to fear”. When they reach the house there are mourners in full flow, and when they go up to her room his daughter looks so still on her bed. Jairus must fear for the worst – he has lost her. But Jesus speaks and tells her ‘Talitha cum’ – little girl, get up – and she does.
Jairus is amazed. No words of mine could convey the joy any father would feel when his child is restored to life and health.

But he might be a little puzzled, too.
You can see why Jesus would want to cure the little girl – she has her life ahead of her, her father is a law-abiding leader of the synagogue, and he begs for help… but the woman with the haemorrhage?
She is the opposite – old, and unclean, and unable even to ask Jesus for help, but just tries to obtain it by stealth.

But Jesus heals them both. He does not weigh their lives in the balance and decide which to save – even the shortage of time and their competing demands does not get in the way of Jesus showing grace and giving healing to both these women.
As Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians says: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
The richness, the healing, the grace Jesus offers is for everyone in need.

Ancient Egyptian myths teach that in order to enter the afterlife, the heart of the dead person is weighed on a balance. If the heart is as light as a feather, the person has led a good life and can enter the afterlife.
Perhaps this sort of idea remains in the minds of many of us who tend to believe that our good deeds ‘count’ for something – maybe they can tip the balance in our favour..?

But grace does not work like this – Jesus shows that we don’t have to worry about our worthiness to receive his love, or be concerned that we have to compete with others to obtain healing. Faced with the dilemma of hurrying to heal Jairus’s daughter or of attending to the furtive woman in the crowd, Jesus deals with, talks to, and heals them both.
Jesus shows us that the grace of God is more generous than we can possibly imagine.
Frederick Faber’s hymn “there’s a wideness in God’s mercy” describes it brilliantly:
There is grace enough for thousands of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations in that upper home of bliss.
For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

There is no need for scales to measure the grace of God – no need to ask if we measure up to it, deserve it, will ‘gain’ it – it is there for you and me – and all of us.

When, in 1953, my dad learned that my mum was expecting a second baby, he was worried – Jane, my sister, their first born, was so loved and so lovely – how could he love this second child as much? It was his mum, my grandma, who told him “the love comes with each child”.
Grandma’s advice must have been right – because he loved that second child, my brother Frank, and then a third – Paul – and still had love enough for me when I arrived as baby number four!

If my dad could manage to find the love that came with each child, how much more can our creator and heavenly father love each child. Jesus shows us that love and that grace through his healing power.

We come to this communion table to experience something of the boundless grace of God.
Some people are puzzled by the fact that we only have a tiny piece of bread and a sip of wine: wouldn’t a sumptuous banquet by a more fitting way to celebrate God’s grace?

Yet this bread reminds us of so much – the bread broken for the 5,000 – when 5 loaves fed all – with 12 basketfuls left over.
And Jesus said – when you break this bread and drink this wine, remember me – my body broken, my blood poured out, so that the whole world will be able to know and share the depth of my love and the amazing grace of the God who treasures and loves each one of us.
Eat, drink, and know how precious you are.

In the name of Christ. Amen.

To be a pilgrim

1 Kings 19: 4-8     John 6: 35, 41-51
Commissioning of Marius Mazuru as Local Church Leader at Pilgrim church.

It is great to be here at Pilgrim Church – named to remember the puritans who left from Plymouth to find religious freedom in America. I thought it might help us, as we are a new stage of the journey for Pilgrim church, to remind ourselves what it means to be a Pilgrim?

Sometimes we talk as if pilgrimage was just an inner journey that we make – to become better people or stronger Christians. But today we cannot forget that there is actual journeying involved if we are to be faithful to God. The Pilgrim fathers (& mothers) set out to cross the great dangerous expanse of the Atlantic Ocean: and Marius has crossed many borders to make Plymouth his home.

Where I was brought up, in Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, we used to make an annual pilgrimage to the ruins of a tiny chapel outside the town, called ‘Cwm y Glo’.
In Welsh that means : valley of coal. A name that wouldn’t really help you find it easily among all those valleys and all that coal!

It was a great spot for a walk and a picnic and a service – a small, sheltered spot, out of sight of any houses except a rambling farm, nestled in the hillside.
We went there to celebrate and remember those who had worshipped centuries earlier. The chapel was built in 1690 – just the year after the Act of Toleration made it legal for non-conformists to assemble to pray – but before that the people of Cwm y Glo worshipped at the farm. They chose the spot because it was isolated, and sheltered, and not easily visible from the hills around.
We were told stories of how the people would have a look out who, if they saw soldiers, would signal to the congregation to stop singing, so that they were not discovered and punished. These were like-minded folk who would have understood the desire to sail away in the Mayflower in 1620.
As a young person I loved that pilgrimage – even if it rained (& it was South Wales…) – I loved the sense of history, I loved the story that we felt part of, and I loved that as we were walking along together you would meet new people from other churches, talk together, swap stories, and then gather to worship and deepen our faith.

A pilgrimage can do all those things. It is why the United Reformed Church has chosen the title ‘Walking the Way’ to describe its focus on discipleship, and why the World Council of Churches has called on its member churches to embark on a ‘pilgrimage of justice and peace’.
We are not called to sit still as Christians, we are called to walk, to be pilgrims, not reading our Bibles alone in our homes or our churches, but reaching out with others, going out to the world with the good news of God’s justice, joy and peace in Jesus Christ.

But our Bible helps us.
We heard the story of Elijah.
I love the honesty of Elijah – he lies down to die in the shade because it is all too much. He has reached the end of his tether, No more journeying for him, he is a weary and disillusioned prophet.
But his story shows us that when we reach the end of our human resources, God’s resources are unlimited.
An angel comes with food and tells him ‘rise Elijah, sit up and eat’.
God can nourish this weary traveller, and give him the strength he needs to go back onto the road with God’s message.

We also heard the words of Jesus in John’s gospel – Jesus says “I am the bread of life”. God gives us even more than food to sustain us – he gives us his very self in Jesus Christ. The presence of God in Christ nourishes us, strengthens us, and sends us out again as pilgrims who bear the good news.
We, too, are fed and sustained by God’s word and God’s presence as we travel as pilgrims through this world – seeking to Walk the Way of Jesus.
I started by saying that the call to pilgrimage is not just an interior journey, that we are also called to go out and do good in the world, and it is good to know that we do this not in our strength alone, but with Jesus as companion and sustainer.

But being a pilgrim is not just about being a doer of good works, the very journey with Christ changes us.
I am reading at the moment a book by a young man called Guy Stagg, “Crossway” – where he describes walking a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome and then on to Jerusalem. When he began his amazing journey he did not see it as an act of faith. A young man in his twenties, he had had a nervous breakdown and felt that the walk would help him in his healing and also help him understand the people he met who did have faith.
As he walked he experienced loneliness, fear, illness, hunger disillusion …but slowly he discovered purpose and faith.
Here is his description of staying in a dormitory on the outskirts of Rome:
“Gabriella was a volunteer, cooking meals for pilgrims ...[but first she] knelt to wash my feet, rinsing them in the bowl, rubbing soap over the arches and soles, and cleaning the suds with more water from the jug.”
Guy Stagg finds Christ kneeling at his feet in Gabriella.

From today you  - Pilgrim people - enter a new phase of your pilgrimage.
You have a new church leader, Marius.
He will encourage you to go out, to walk to new places, to meet new people.
He will help you remember that you can always come here to be fed by God’s word, and in communion by God’s self.
As he serves alongside you, you may meet God with you, not, perhaps washing your feet, but with you at every step.

God with you -
as the Father who loves and cherishes
as the Son who cleanses, feeds and sustains
and as the Spirit who guides and empowers.
Go forward in the name of God – the one and three


Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Stilling the storm

Job 38: 1-11; Mark 4: 35-41 - Middle Lambrook URC 350th anniversary.

Stilling the storm

Tell me, in accents of wonder, how rolled the sea,
Tossing the boat in a tempest on Galilee;
And how the Master, ready and kind,
Chided the billows, and hushed the wind.

Well, that’s what happened, according to Mark’s gospel – but why is he telling us this story?

Mark – which is thought to be the first gospel to be written down – is the shortest gospel: so short indeed that it has almost nothing to say about the resurrection of Jesus.
Some of the oldest versions of Mark end with the women running from the empty tomb of Jesus and the phrase “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”.

Yet Mark did not write down his gospel until about 30 or 40 years after the resurrection, so you would think he would have heard about the resurrection of Jesus.

Mark starts his gospel with “the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God”, and he records all the events that happen in the light of his belief that the risen Jesus is the Son of God. He reads backwards from the risen Jesus and uses events from the life of Jesus to illustrate a dawning sense of realisation that Jesus is God’s Son.

Sometimes we do this with events in life. To give a trivial example, I have recently been having trouble with my shoulder. I ended up going to the GP who asked the usual ‘when did it all start?’ question. It is only in the light of the pain and restricted movement I was getting that I remembered tripping over and twisting quite awkwardly. I found myself saying “come to think of it, my shoulder was never the same after that – I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the beginning of all this trouble”.

Mark tells us the story of Jesus, and on a number of occasions he tells stories where the disciples might have said ‘Come to think of it, it gave us goose-bumps, we should have known then that Jesus would rise from death.’
Mark uses the word ‘fear’ to describe this feeling – but it can be translated also as feeling afraid, filled with awe, astounded, terrified. It’s not an emotion that can be ignored, and the disciples experience it 6 times with Jesus:

During this storm at sea (4: 41), and during another storm, when Jesus walks on the water to join them in the boat (6: 50).
Twice when Jesus predicts his death (9:32 & 10: 32).
At the transfiguration (9:6)
And, as I mentioned, the women feel it on finding the empty tomb (16:8).

I fact, the fear is so great during today’s story when Jesus stills the storm, that Mark says of the disciples “they feared a great fear”. This is the first time they’ve seen Jesus do anything like this.
It’s not because of what Jesus says or does to them, or something he does to the boat – Jesus commands the sea.

Only God – the creator of all, can command the sea: hovering over the chaotic depths, dividing dry land from sea, separating the waters above and below the earth.

We heard from the book of Job how God finally answers Job’s pleas for mercy, following the terrible fate that has befallen him. Job has laid out all his good works and asks ‘doesn’t God see my ways?’.
When God finally speaks he asks questions of his own “where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” “who supported the sea at its birth.. and said ‘Thus far you may come but no farther’?”.
God places Job’s suffering in the context of the wonders of creation – and especially God’s mastery over the sea. God who made all, holds all in his hand and sees all.
Yes, God cares for Job, but Job is not actually at the centre of the universe – God is.

When the disciples ask Jesus “Don’t you care that we are sinking?” – Jesus responds not only by saving them, but by demonstrating who he really is – he commands the sea.
The disciples are awe-struck and ask “Who can this be? Even the wind and sea obey him?”.

That question “who can this be?” grows through Mark’s gospel  – and with it comes a growing sense of awe and fear.
Jesus is able to command the sea.
Jesus is revealed in glory at the transfiguration.
Jesus predicts his sacrificial death.
Jesus is not dead – and the tomb is empty.

Mark wants us to know that this living Jesus is the Saviour and the Son of God ad we should follow him and become part of God’s kingdom.

It is that determination to follow and proclaim Jesus that led people to begin worshipping in this place 350 years ago. I found a little of the history on line, suggesting that the earlier meeting house here burnt down and the new ‘Presbyterian Meeting House’ was registered in 1729. The meeting probably became Unitarian for a time in the eighteenth century but then Independent and later Congregational from the end of the eighteenth century.
This then became a United Reformed Church in 1972.

What other storms have hit in that time, I wonder?
Have there been times when you’ve felt like joining the disciples in the boat as they shout to a sleeping Jesus over the roar of the waves “We are sinking! Do you not care?”.
Or joining with Job to say “does God not see my ways?”.

But I also hope and pray there have been times when, like Mark, you have seen and known the presence of jesus in this place and have now God with you.
Because the truth, the gospel, the good news, is this: the creator of all and master of all is with us, ready to command the seas and the winds, and ready to calm our fears.
The “Breton fishermen’s prayer” puts it this way:
Protect me O Lord for my boat is so small,
Protect me O Lord for my boat is so small
My boat is so small and your sea is so wide
Protect me O Lord.

May this little vessel  - this church - be one in which the glory and peace of Jesus Christ is known. 
May your little vessel - yourself - be one in which the glory and peace of Jesus Christ is known. 
To his glory. Amen.