Saturday, 29 September 2018

Taking sides – or taking responsibility

 Mark 9: 38-50, James 5: 13-20

I don’t know whether you have been following the case in the news this week of the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme High Court. Considerng his nomination, the Senate have heard an accusation from Professor Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh sexually attacked her when they were both teenagers.
Many questions surround the case: who is telling the truth ? how can events from decades ago be properly investigated? If Brett Kavangaugh, who is now a judge, did those things so many years ago, does it have a bearing on his fitness to hold office now?
I am not going to try to adjudicate – but I did find myself wondering how ‘good’ you have to be to be a judge – for surely none of u is perfect. And I was still wondering about questions of how to be ‘good’ when I read our Bible readings set for today.

What a contrast between the two readings we heard!
The letter of James seems very positive about how we live together as a community – praying for one another, singing cheerful songs of praise, forgiving one another…
We know this is how we should live – and yet perhaps there are times when we find it incredibly difficult. But we know, basically, how to be good, and perhaps we fool ourselves that by being good and being part of community in this way we are deserving of our place in church, or on a judicial bench.

So maybe the Gospel reading, hard as it is, has more to teach us. “If your hand causes your downfall.. cut it off”.
Can these really be the words of Jesus? In our world we are a familiar with Islamic Shariah law as a proposed punishment for theft – cutting off the hand of a thief - and the thought of it is awful and barbaric. But Jesus is not suggesting a form of punishment – he is not talking about what we should do to others – he is using dramatic language to encourage people to take responsibility for their own actions. “If your foot causes your downfall – cut it off”.
In other words, have nothing to do with the sort of excuse for behaviour which says ‘it wasn’t my fault, it was my roving eye, my lousy childhood, my physical urges – that made me do it’. Jesus wants us to take responsibility for our own bodies and what we do with them. Being good isn’t about just one part of your body – it about the whole of you, teaches Jesus.

But Jesus is also clear that our responsibility does not end with responsibility to ourselves. Jesus’ disciples have found someone healing in Jesus’ name – but, they try to stop him because, they say, this person is not “following us”.
They are very sure who is in Jesus’ group and who isn’t – this person isn’t so how dare they try to heal in the name of Jesus. Jesus is clear ‘whoever is not against us is for us’. A good action is good and Godly, and can be done in the name of Jesus, even if it is done by someone surprising.
The disciples have to learn that God’s kingdom is not just their little club – it is for everyone, and is for the healing and good of everyone.
Then Jesus explains that they could do great harm by trying to limit those for whom God’s love has come – ‘if any of you put a stumbling block in front of these little ones, it would be better for you if a great millstone were placed round your neck and you were cast into the sea’.
We are responsible for what we do to others “if anyone cause the downfall of one of these little ones who believe, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone round his neck”. We are responsible for what we do with our lives – and responsible for the damage we might do to others.

This is not nearly so cheery as the letter of James – is it? We must beware getting between the little ones & the love of God – or we might end up being punished.
What does this mean – surely we aren’t excluding anyone from God’s love, and we never see anyone casting out demons and tell them to stop. What is this warning about?
Perhaps for us the message of Jesus is to make sure that we know we have a responsibility for all people – that our welcome needs to be as wide as the needs of the world.
Sometimes in the history of the church we have become too concerned with whether another person is good enough to come into the fellowship of the church. Yet Jesus teaches that God’s love is for all – God’s welcome is for all – there is no ‘good enough’ – we are all saved by the gracious, overflowing love of God.

Finally, Jesus says “you must have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another” – our responsibility to others shouldn’t stop at not doing others harm – we must actively seek their good.
Maybe the answer to the question of ‘who is good enough to be Supreme Court Judge?’ is that no-one is, but that a person who knows their flaws but also knows the redeeming mercy of God and their need of a strong community to help them to be the best they can be is someone who has a chance of doing the job of bringing justice to others.

But if all this talk of taking responsibility for ourselves and for others and for peace itself feels like too much – it is good that we meet around the Lord’s table.
Here as we face the challenge of his Word to us we also receive the promise of his gift to us – God’s gift of his very self, to feed and strengthen us, and to be present with us always.

The Jesus who challenges to think about who we use our bodies was prepared to give his body to be broken on the cross, so that we might see the depths the love of God will go to love us, poor as we are. We do not need to be good, we do not need to chop off those parts of ourselves which have sinned, we do not have to judge others – God’s love is here at this table – and it is for us all. The goodness of God is greater than anything which might debar us.
Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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

Amen.