Saturday, 31 March 2018

Easter - the light dawns.

Easter Day          Mark 16: 1-8, 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11
Very early, on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, the women came to the tomb.

I imagine some of you might be morning people – you like to be up early, or maybe work means you need to be up early, or maybe you have a small child who has not yet learnt the meaning of the term “lie-in” (in my experience it takes about 13 years..).
So you may be very well acquainted with the dawn.
Others of you might be like me and only see the dawn on very rare occasions. Apparently today the sunrise was officially at 6.49 – but of course dawn starts before that, as the darkness of the night starts to give way to the first streaks of light and colour in the sky.

For those without too much direct experience, here is a beautiful description someone recently shared with me, by Virginia Woolf in her novel The Waves. This begins in the dim moments of gathering light that proceed daybreak. The sun had not yet risen.

“The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually..”

Dawn is beautiful, gradual, mysterious – yet over time the light grows, and day begins.

No wonder we use the term things ‘dawn on us’ as a way of describing a slow recognition of truth: sometimes reality ‘dawns on us’, compared to those times we have a ‘lightbulb moment’ when we suddenly grasp something.

The first witnesses come to the empty tomb at dawn – and I think it dawns on them only slowly what has really happened.
Who will move the stone, huge as it is?
Here it is – rolled back!
Who is the young man in a white robe sitting in the tomb?
What is he saying? “Jesus has been raised. Go and tell the disciples”

No wonder they are described as ‘dumbfounded’ and Mark writes “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”. Some manuscripts of Mark’s gospel even end there. But of course if they had never got over this initial shock there would be no resurrection story at all.
Slowly, light dawns, the truth dawns, their terror subsides and they go with the joyful message to the disciples.

Even then – the dawning of the truth of Christ’s resurrection is slow.
Luke tells us the disciples thought, at first, that what the women had to say was ‘idle gossip’;
Luke also tells us the story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus, where Jesus is not recognised at first;
Meanwhile John singles out Thomas as the one who doubts the accounts of others until he sees for himself.

Slowly, gradually, but surely, reality dawns. Jesus is risen from the dead – he is alive – death has been conquered.

We heard a passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, probably written about 20 years after the resurrection.
Paul seems very sure of exactly what happened as he ‘reminds them’ of the gospel:
“Christ died.. was buried…he was raised to life on the third day.”
Paul is the one from whose story we get our phrase ‘Damascus moment’ to explain a sudden grasp of the truth and the turn around it can produce. But even Paul, whose encounter with the risen Jesus was – literally – a blinding flash, takes time to explain how Jesus gradually appears to more and more people
“he appeared to Cephas, and afterwards to the twelve. Then he appeared to over 500 of our brothers.”

We don’t know whose account Paul had heard – remember the gospels weren’t written down for another 20 or 30 years after Paul’s letters – but he is summarising for the church at Corinth that their faith is that Jesus is risen and that the truth of his risen life is spreading gradually across the world, like the rising sun.

In the last six months I have seen my parents gently decline and die – into their nineties, full of years and full of faith. In a sense it has felt like a story of the sun gently setting, rather than a story of dawn.
And yet reflecting on their lives, I realise that although neither of them was an out-front, gregarious evangelical – you know the type who talks to strangers on the bus about Jesus – their lives witnessed to a faith which grew gently through the years and which illuminated their lives.
They were both brought up going to church, and brought up all of us, their children, in the life of the church too. They served as elders, my dad often involved with money and buildings, and my mum as a faithful Sunday school teacher and youth group leader.
They loved and supported many ministers, including, as my life unfolded, me.
They were both unafraid of death, not because they were whistling in the dark, but because they were longing to see what the true light of God’s presence would be like. As the light of their physical energy waned, the light of Christ within them just grew stronger. And when at last they were ‘promoted to glory’, as my lovely Salvation Army friends say, and people have said ‘I’m sorry to hear about their deaths’ my honest response has been “I’m not”.
The good news is that those of us who try to walk in the light of Christ, in the end go to live in the unending love and light Christ promises.

I wonder what good news you need to hear this morning?

Perhaps you’re ready for Paul’s blinding flash to illuminate your darkness.
Perhaps having held back your Alleluias all through Lent you are ready to let your joy burst out in a huge explosion.
Or perhaps like the women going to the tomb, you are only just feeling your way in the darkness, hoping for a glimmer, trusting that the light will dawn on you as time passes.

The truth of Easter is that just as the sun inexorably shines more strongly as dawn come, so the light of the risen Christ breaks upon us.

Whether we are aware of the first trickles of the light of truth in our darkness; or appreciating the growing strength and certainty of daylight; or basking in the full glare of noonday – the light of the love of God shines on us.

That love is greater than death.
That love raised Jesus from the tomb.
That love will shine on us, in us and through us.
The dawn breaks and Christ is risen indeed – alleluia. Amen.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Healed to serve

Isaiah 40: 21-31
Mark 1: 29-39

I want you to imagine a pendulum. Swinging, slowly, to & fro. Not so I can lull you to sleep, I hope, but to help us to explore our readings this morning and think about what they mean for us.

Whenever people think about God, they tend to set up ideas which seem to be opposite, and the pendulum starts to swing.
Surely God is high above everything we know, the maker of all things, the creator of everything from atoms to planets. God is vast, immense, unknowable. One end of the pendulum has people describing God in this lofty, magnificent, splendid way.
Isaiah paints a picture of a God who sits so far from us that we look like grasshoppers in his sight “great in strength, mighty in power”.

But then the gospels paint a picture of Jesus who is ‘God with us’ – down to earth, living a human life, concerned for Simon’s mother-in-law. The pendulum swings the other way as we see God right here with us, in Jesus.
The wonder is that God is all of these things, and more.
The God who created the universe and is worthy of all our praise is also the God who cares for a sick woman, lying in bed with a fever.

And of course in Jesus we see not just God’s care for us, but God’s ability to heal and to save. This would not be news to Isaiah, either, who spoke of the God who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless”. God with us empowers us to “run and not be weary, walk and not faint”.

This pendulum idea also applies to our thinking about church. Is church about what we do when we worship – or the service we offer God in our lives? Should we put more effort into the words we use to speak about God… or the actions we do to show people God’s love?
Is prayer more important in life? Or is it more important to share our faith with others?
These are not simple questions – and the answer is never one thing and not the other.
The Council for World Mission – which started life as the London Missionary Society – has produced a book of daily devotions to mark its 40th anniversary as the Council for World Mission. On Friday (February 2nd) the daily devotion was written by Rev Goodwin Zainga of the Churches of Christ in Malawi. He wrote this:

“Evangelism without prayer is powerless evangelism…disciples pray but forget to evangelise”.

We need to remember the whole movement of the pendulum.

And what about discipleship – what should that be about ?
The United Reformed Church has just begun a new focus on discipleship – all sorts of resources are being suggested to help us think about what it means to follow Jesus. You might have seen an introductory leaflet with orange footprints on it – the title is “Walking the Way – living the life of Jesus today”. It might not be a very snappy title but I think it’s a helpful one.
Being a disciple of Jesus means walking the way of Jesus – and that means thinking about how we live the life of Jesus in our lives.

So is discipleship about listening to what Jesus said..
or doing what Jesus did?
Let’s remember how Jesus ‘walks’, so we can walk the way of Jesus.

After the healing of Simon’s mother in law, Jesus cures many who are sick – in body and in mind. The next morning, Jesus goes out to a deserted place to pray, and Simon and his companions go hunting for Jesus because everyone is asking for him. Jesus says “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also.”.
Jesus resists the temptation to only be seen as a healer – to let the pendulum swing in the direction of healing, and away from teaching. Jesus is here to proclaim the kingdom of God through his healing and his teaching, and the power for this comes from prayer.
This doesn’t sound like a bad model for discipleship: we should pray – as Jesus did, heal – as Jesus did, teach – as Jesus did.

But I think the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law points us to something else which is vital.
Simon’s mother-in-law is sick – she has a fever. Perhaps this year’s flu epidemic has given us a new respect for what it means to be in bed with a fever: I seem to know a lot of people who “missed” Christmas, or have had a lousy start to the new year, because they spent a number of days in bed, with a fever.
Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up and heals her – the fever leaves her and she begins to serve them.
Before she can serve her son-in-law Simon and his friends, before she can do anything for Jesus, she has to be healed herself.

Whatever sort of disciples we are, we must not lose sight of the fact that in order to serve Jesus, we first need to be touched and healed by Jesus.
Isaiah knew of our reliance on God’s touch “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles..”.

So before we go out into the world to serve Jesus – and to heal, teach, or feed others – we first come to this table.
To be fed.
To pray for healing.
To receive God’s touch on the broken places in our lives.

The Jesus who healed Simon’s mother-in-law welcomes us all to his table to be healed – and send us all out to serve.
To God’s praise & glory.


Saturday, 23 September 2017

Harvest - workers in the vineyard

Matthew 20: 1-16

The labourers have been hard at work: all around us there are cut fields, full barns, plentiful stores. And here in church we have the fruits of harvest – carrots, apples, bread. God has blessed us with plenty and we have come to sing our gratitude.

So it’s good that we have heard a gospel reading dealing with harvest and plenty. But where we might expect gratitude we hear grumbling instead.
“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”.

Jesus says ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this’ and we try really hard to nod our heads wisely as Jesus declares the largesse of the landowner, who pours out abundant grace on those who only worked one hour. We know in our heads that God loves us all with a love so outrageous and so generous that it cannot be described as ‘fair’.

This parable may be trying to convince our heads that this is a story about God’s grace and we should accept that, but don’t we find our hearts get left behind because they are still crying out “but it isn’t fair!”.

30 years ago, when I was a young teacher, I took a school assembly on this parable of the workers in the vineyard. I told the story, and concluded that God’s love is not meant to be fair – it is for us all, regardless of how hard we work, or how rich we are.
Assembly ended, I breathed a sigh of relief, the children and teachers trooped off the first two lessons of the day, and by coffee time I had nearly forgotten what I had said. Until I entered the staff room. Immediately I was cornered by some of my colleagues – how could I tell that story, how could I believe that, it is patently NOT FAIR. Next I’d be saying that newly-qualified teachers should earn the same as the head!
But of course I was a newly-qualified teacher – it seemed to me that rewarding the one who the least, who was quaking in their boots, who wondered whether they’d have enough money to get through the month, was not such a bad idea.
I told the story because I believed in the grace of God and God’s outrageous love, but I read it rather differently because I could identify with the low paid!

So can we try to help our hearts feel this story from the other point of view?
The ones who were not hired had to endure the constant failure to be picked – first thing and then at 9 and noon and three. Not until 5 o’clock, when there is only one more hour to work, are they hired… and even then they must wonder what they will receive. Will it be enough to feed their families that night?
Imagine, then the flood of relief to receive a full day’s pay – enough to live on, despite all the waiting and the worrying. And imagine how grateful you would feel, to be given enough.
Poorer people – like these relieved and grateful ones in the parable who only worked one hour – have much to teach us about gratitude.

In May I was lucky enough to go to Zimbabwe for just over a week, to see some of the projects which the URC support through our giving to Commitment for Life & Christian Aid.
The very first place we visited was a garden project, where a water pump has been installed to enable older people – many of them widows – to grow their own food. The gardeners came out to meet our bus with singing and dancing. Once they had sat us down in the shade of  tree, one of them, Florence Kona, said,
"Our lives have changed. My child is now a builder in Mutare. We have learnt about book keeping, recording monies, cleanliness and how to spend money wisely. This garden has given my family better food and money to buy things we need. We hope you continue giving.
We thank you, we have prayed for you without seeing - but now we see you face to face!".
The people we met wanted to express their gratitude for the help we give – not grumble that we are so rich we could afford to fly out 7,000 miles to see them.

We are here because our harvest is plentiful – but we are very conscious that it is not so in every part of the world. And even in countries of plenty, not everyone gets a share – ask those families who rely on food banks and community larders to get through the month without hunger. I’m sure in this harvest celebration we want to put on record our gratitude, not our grumbling.

Jesus often used parables to talk about the kingdom of God – the way we should live our lives. But I don’t think he simply meant us to hear this story and think ‘we should be grateful and not grumbling’.
It is good if this parable makes us want to cry out against injustice, because when we are truly grateful for what God has given us, we want fairness for all, because all are God’s children.

This parable speaks of the generosity and giving of God – of God’s grace  - which is boundless.
As we give thanks for what God has given us, we are challenged to recognize how blessed we are, but also, I hope stirred to seek justice so that all God’s children can be fed.

Those of us to whom so much has been given need to give thanks, and then spend our lives and our strength trying to be people who are as generous as God.

Our gratitude and our generosity should be boundless – as boundless as God’s giving to us – until the whole world rejoices in having plenty to eat, and the whole world knows of the boundless love God pours out on us all.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.