Saturday, 28 February 2009

Lent 1: March 1st

Lent 1
I’ve had one of those weeks. When you forget what day it is on Ash Wednesday, you know you might be overdoing it! My diary seems to have been filled with one thing after another. I’m not complaining, but I’m hoping the pace of next week will be rather more measured.
Perhaps you’ve had a busy week, too. Or perhaps you’ve had the frustration of not having enough to do – or not enough energy to do very much at all. One of my Oxford tutors once said that we should all remember that we’re human beings, not human doings – we are not made by God with the primary purpose of doing things, but only of being – and we mustn’t get overwhelmed by business.

As we start Lent, we start a time when we try to be more reflective – to slow down a little, and go on the journey towards Jerusalem with Jesus.

So what do we learn from Jesus in today’s Gospel reading about how to ‘be’?
I’m struck by how passive Jesus is in most of the reading we heard. Jesus is baptized by John and in Mark’s version of this story the only speech we have is from heaven itself as Jesus sees the dove descend. Then the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan and waited on by angels. Only when John the Baptist is arrested does Jesus finally act: he comes to Galilee and proclaims God’s good news. And did you notice what he asks his listeners to ‘do’? - repent and believe in the good news.

Jesus doesn’t begin his ministry with great shows of power, mass healings, huge sermons (in fact other gospel writers suggests to us he might have been resisting the temptation to do just that).
Jesus begins with God the Father’s blessing and with a time of reflection and prayer. And then he requires of his followers that they should turn and believe in the good news of God’s love, before they listen to any instruction from him about what to do at all.

Here is the good news, indeed, for human beings obsessed by doing something – God’s love for us is God’s initiative, not something of our doing, and we start by simply believing in that love.

You might have felt that the reading from Genesis, too, was somewhat lacking in action. Noah has, on God’s instructions, built the ark, filled it with animals, and sailed through the devastating flood.
But now the action is all over, and today’s passage reports God talking to Noah about the covenant God is making with all creation, sealed with the sign of the rainbow.

I was struck again by the fact that this covenant relationship requires nothing from Noah or any other of God’s creatures: it is a deal struck through the unconditional love and care of God.

God uses the word ‘covenant’ 7 times in that passage. 7 times! - it might just be a coincidnce that that’s once for each day of creation – a covenant with every living thing God has made. The covenant, like the act of creation itself, is God's initiative - after all, Noah & his family had only obeyed God's instructions - God did all the creative parts!

Perhaps in our busyness, when we're so taken up with things we feel we have to do, God sends us a rainbow - a sign that God is in charge & we are just the hired help.
Even Jesus is called to be obedient – to put God the Father in charge at the start of his ministry and right through until the end.

I haven’t touched at all on the subject of giving things up for Lent – of course this can be a useful spiritual discipline and has it roots in the ancient tradition of fasting as a means of closer communion with God. I think the danger is of our seeing Lent as something else which we do: whilst today’s readings are pointing us firmly in the direction of what God does for the world – in the covenant relationship with all of creation, and in the incarnation, life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Our task is to repent and believe – to trust and obey. So it is entirely proper that we receive communion today – accepting the bread and wine given to us, as a symbol of all the unconditional love God gives.
There is only one thing we must do in return: eat and drink – and be very thankful.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Ash Wednesday

Given the title 'Sunday's coming' I wasn't sure whether to post this one: but here it is, anyway.

Ash Wednesday (Isaiah 58: 1-12 , John 8: 1-11)

Soon we will hear the traditional words to accompany the imposition of ashes
‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

Dust gets a bad press. We all dread the visitor who will notice the dust on what should be shiny surfaces of our home; we speak of grand plans turning to ‘dust and ashes’; we certainly know it’s not a good thing to get be described as ‘old & dusty’. The origin of the phrase ‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’ come is the judgement of Adam, when God finds he has sinned’. It might seem a terrible, even a debasing thing, to be told we are just so much dust.

But we are dust.

Apparently up to 95% of household dust can be made up of human skin: even before death, we are destined to return to dust.

And when Adam is told that he is dust, it is not some sort of curse from God, but a statement of the truth: as human beings we are not made, chemically, of anything different from all the rest of creation around us – the Genesis story tells us Adam was made of the dust of the ground; Darwinian evolution tells us we are evolved from simpler life-forms; Carl Sagan, the astronomer, once said, memorably ‘we are made of star stuff’ – they all say the same thing, we are just one part of the whole of God’s created order.

We are dust. But far from being a put-down or a curse, this is a statement of fact which can lift our sights and our hearts to live as God created us to live.
Isaiah’s voice calls out to the people of God to be aware of their sins, not so that they can repent in sackcloth and ashes – looking the part of those who have turned back to God. But Isaiah demands justice, the sharing of bread and home, clothing for the naked: repentance which expresses itself in a new life.

So our words for imposing the ashes cannot stop at
‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
But go on to say
‘Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

We are dust – we are human – we are fallible – and we fail.
But we are dust – we are God’s creation – we are made for a better life – and we are forgiven.

Perhaps when Jesus, confronted with the adulterous woman, traced the dust with his finger he was reminding the crowd not only of their common humanity as ‘frail children of dust’, but also their creation as children of God – made for love and not revenge; made for good and not evil.

Yet how do we make this change from failure and alienation to love and relationship? Surely it isn’t enough simply to remember who we are and whose we are and try to live accordingly?

The prologue of John’s gospel tells us, effectively ‘the Word became dust’ – God came in Jesus, sharing everything about our human nature, including our innate ‘dustiness’. This human dust can become the vessel for God’s glory. We are dust – but we are loved dust, blessed dust, visited dust, glorified dust.

‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

Come and celebrate our part in God’s creation: sinners of frail dust, and yet the beloved children of the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ to lift us from the dust and bring us home to him.

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Sermon 22/2/09


The story of the transfiguration is one of the strangest of the episodes of Jesus’ ministry – so strange that some writers have suggested that it didn’t happen during Jesus earthly life at all, but is a resurrection appearance which has got misplaced in the gospel.
But if this is a resurrection story, it’s a very odd one – nowhere else do Moses & Elijah appear with the resurrected Jesus, or does anyone offer to build a shelter for Jesus, and in no other resurrection story is Jesus silent.
I think we learn most from the story when we take it that Mark has put it in the right place in the narrative of the life of Jesus: and in fact we learn most when we stop looking at what Jesus is doing, and pay more attention to the disciples: James, John & Peter.

Everything that happens in this story is directed at the 3 disciples:
Jesus led them up the mountain
He is transfigured before them
There appeared to them Moses & Elijah
A cloud overshadowed them
They saw no-one with them
Jesus ordered them to tell no-one what they had seen.

Whatever happens on that mountain, it is for the disciples’ benefit, it is to help them understand more about Jesus’ identity and purpose: it offers them a glimpse of the glory that truly belonged to Jesus, and which is normally veiled in his earthly ministry.

Jesus wants these three disciples to understand his true identity – but then he swears them to secrecy.
You may well have noticed this theme of secrecy throughout Mark’s gospel – after any statement or display of his identity, Jesus is often heard saying ‘tell no-one’.

This can seem puzzling: does Jesus want his followers to know who he is, or not?

Mark starts his gospel with the clear statement that he is writing ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. Mark is in no doubt about who Jesus is – God made flesh. But as the gospel is told, Mark wants his hearers and readers to understand Jesus’ identity in the context of the whole of his life.
It is almost as if he wants us to see the jig-saw pieces falling into place, rather than being in too much of a rush to cheat and look at the whole picture on the lid of the box. It may well be that Mark wants us to understand how it was for these disciples – slowly but surely coming to terms with the fact that their friend and master, Jesus, was the incarnate Son of God come to save the world through his death and resurrection.

As the narrative of Mark’s gospel starts to move us towards Jerusalem, and as in our church year we are about to begin Lent and the journey to Easter, we come face to face with the transfigured Christ. Whatever happens to this man Jesus in the days to come – the opposition, betrayal, arrest, scourging and crucifixion – even death itself – is happening to the Son of God.
And Peter James and John are the ones entrusted with the clearest vision of who Jesus is, so that after death and resurrection, they can help everyone to make sense of what has happened among them in Jesus.
However we envisage the transfiguration of Jesus, we cannot escape the parallels with another time Jesus was alone with James John & Peter – a time which perhaps shows another attempt by Jesus to tutor them into a better understanding of his identity.
The next time when Jesus draws these 3 disciples away from the others will be in the garden of Gethsemane. They will hear Jesus pray ‘Father, take this cup away from me – yet not my will but yours be done’.

This Jesus, their friend, is revealed to them at the transfiguration as the one who bears the whole of the glory of God. God himself says ‘this is my son – listen to him!’. And then as the point of death is very near, as they listen to Jesus, they hear him accept the will of the father – even though he knows he will have to drink from the cup of suffering.

And what about us? Thanks to Mark’s gospel, alongside other sources, we are privileged to know just who Jesus is – the Son of God, come, veiled in flesh, to live and die and live again for love of the world.

As Lent begins next week, can we find ways to deepen our knowledge of Jesus, explore his identity more fully, and share our faith with others?
Can we be part of the company of those who help the full jigsaw of the story of Jesus to be completed – in what we say to others and what we do for them?

Here at the table of the Lord we are welcomed and invited to share in his life and death and resurrection as we celebrate with this bread and wine.

May we see and know and grow in the love of Jesus Christ – to God’s glory. Amen.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Naaman the Syrian

This week's reading from the Hebrew scriptures is the story of Naaman the Syrian.

I've got the weekend off - but was at a meeting in the week where we were reflecting on the story & I was very struck by the role of the 3 servants in this:
Naaman's wife's servant is the one who tells him to go to Elijah for healing in the first place - she has faith in her God.
Naaman's servant is the one who persuades him to bathe in the miserable little river Jordan - he seems to a pragmatist 'if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?' - whether he believes it will work or just thinks Naaman might as well try it, we don't really know.
Elijah's servant goes running after Naaman after he has tried to pay Elijah for his services & Elijah has refused payment - Elijah's servant says 'Ooh, I'll take some money!' - & is punished with the skin disease. He thinks Gods power is something he can cash in on.
I think it would be interesting to reflect on the 3 different reactions to Gods power to heal.. and may well do this next time I'm called to preach in this reading. But meanwhile - Geneva & the museum of the Reformation, here I come!

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Sunday's sermon 8-2-09

Healing of Simon’s mother-in-law Mark 1; 29-39

On Monday I had to go to the dentist. I was hoping that with the snow that morning, my dentist might not be there and I’d be spared my treatment. No such luck – there she was and she cheerfully said
“I’m German – of course I’m here: why do you British get so thrown by a tiny bit of snow?”.
I tried to explain that we’re not really used to it and so it does seem to disrupt our usual lives a lot. Suddenly you can’t take it for granted that the buses will run, or the school will be open, or that you can walk on the pavements safely. Of course it’s great fun for the children building snowmen and having snowball fights: but mostly we all want to get back to normal.

But perhaps the break from the normal routine can get us thinking about how we normally live and act. Sometimes a time to stop and take stock is no bad thing: what are our daily lives normally like and are we spending our time well?

Our Gospel reading gave us a description of part of a typical day in the life of Jesus. Just before the part we heard, Jesus had been in the synagogue of Capernaum because it was a Sabbath day. There he had spent his time teaching (‘with authority’ we’re told) and then healing a man with an evil spirit who bursts in. Then, as we heard, Jesus left the synagogue and went with his disciples to Simon and Andrew’s house, where Simon’s mother-in-law was confined to bed with a fever.

Jesus immediately healed her and lifted her to her feet.
We’re told that immediately she began to serve the needs of those in the house with her. The restoration of her health was complete – she didn’t just feel a bit better, she was herself again and could look after the needs of everyone around her.

We’ll come back to Simon’s mother-in-law in a moment!

Once they had all eaten and rested and after sunset, when the Sabbath was over, people brought along those who were sick and in need and Jesus healed them all.
And then at the very end of the day, Jesus goes off to a lonely place to pray. He goes to get in touch with his Father, the source of all his energy, and to restore his wholeness and peace. Then he will be ready for another day of service, healing and teaching.

Jesus shows us a life of balance: the work of healing and teaching, the company of his friends, and rest and restoration in prayer.

You might be thinking – well it’s all very well for Jesus, he’s about 30 years old – plenty of energy to do all these things in one day. It’s true that the amount of what Jesus does is amazing and wonderful, and the acts of healing themselves are staggering; but it’s the balance of work and rest, others and self, people and prayer, which has so much to teach us.

Sigmund Freud defined mental health as the ability to love and to work. By ‘work’ he didn’t mean digging trenches or lifting huge weights, he meant doing something which makes a difference –
whether it’s cooking a meal for ourselves or for others, making a phone call to someone who’s lonely, or offering a smile to the person with the post or the newspaper.

I promised we’d come back to Simon’s mother-in-law. I used to be quite affronted by this story. The poor woman is sick and in bed, then Simon & all his friends pile in expecting a meal and to be looked after. You can imagine the look Simon’s wife might have given him, if she didn’t actually say it: what are you doing here when you know my mother is ill in bed & not fit to help me get a meal ready!
But as soon as they tell Jesus about the illness he goes and heals her – but only so she can wait on them! On thinking about this story more carefully, though, I can’t think of any examples in the gospel stories where Jesus heals someone for his own benefit rather than his: this doesn’t seem like what Jesus would do. Perhaps the person who remembered this story wanted to point out how absolutely healed she was, or perhaps she was the sort of person who hates being ill and couldn’t wait to get back to work.. or perhaps Jesus knows that real health isn’t just about feeling better, but is about being able to use our strength for the sake of others – to do work which makes a difference.

Whether it’s because of the snow or because of illness, we all long to get back to normal.

The love of God shown in Jesus longs to restore us to health and to balance in our lives: in this bread & wine of communion God gives us an invitation to accept his plan for our lives – so that we can live to Gods praise & glory

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Now I'm not moaning, but...

Below you'll see last week's sermon. I was a bit nervous about taking a political stance on Gaza, but felt I couldn't wriggle out of it. Preach the sermon twice (at a 9.30 & 11 am at two different churches)... nothing. No real reaction at all. Oh well.

On to this week - Proper 1 ( 3 before Lent).
Isaiah 40: 21-31
Mark 1: 29-39

Some nice reassuring words about strength & health from the Lord (in both Isaiah & the gospel).
What I don't want to do is preach an anodyne 'cast your burdens on the Lord' sermon - I think I might try to say something about rhythym, about 'work', about resting & praying & being restored...
Will anyone hear the word of God in what I say? How will I know if they do??

Better late than never?

Candlemass: Malachi 3: 1-5; Luke 2: 22-40

The difficulty with starting any sermon by looking at the Bible readings is that if the preacher isn’t careful the impression can be given that the Bible is an old book full of ancient stories, which need to be studied carefully if they are to make any sense to our modern minds, but which can, with care, be bent around to give a meaning for today.

But that’s not what the Bible is – the Bible is God’s word to us now and we read it in each act of worship so that God can speak to us now, where and when we are listening. Those of us who were able to be at John Proctor’s Bible study at Whittlesford on Tuesday evening heard John saying that the story of Genesis – though thousands of years old – has something to say to us about our care of the planet right now.

So when we hear of God’s appearance in the temple in the prophecies of Malachi and at the start of Jesus’ life, we need to hear these as stories about God’s appearing and God’s concern for justice right now.

We are certainly living in a world in need of justice. Just this last week there has been a fierce row about the rightness and justice of the BBC screening an appeal from the Disasters Emergency Committee for the people of Gaza. Already I hear alarm bells ringing around me – preachers should steer clear of politics, and the politics of the Middle East are possibly the most hotly debated of all. But I don’t want us to ask about the rights and wrongs of land ownership – but to listen to God’s call for justice and peace.
Surely it is not the will of God that several hundred children should be killed in air raids – and that thousands more are without clean water, food to eat, and hospitals with medicines? That is not justice.
Malachi warns of a time when God will appear in his temple. It is a warning and not just a prophecy of hope because God will come like refiner’s fire, like fuller’s soap – burning, powerful, cleansing. Malachi wants the people of God to know that when God comes to them he will come demanding justice and not empty rituals of worship. Worship is intended to bring the people close to God and close to God’s will – to become people who know they are God’s own, and that God requires justice in his world.

And so, hundreds of years later, Simeon and Anna are waiting in God’s temple for the time of God’s salvation to come, for the kingdom of justice and peace to come in all its wonder and its terror. When a tiny baby is brought to the temple by his parents so that they can give thanks for his birth, Simeon and Anna recognise that God is at work uniquely in this baby. God has come, not in power to sort out injustice once and for all from on high, but God has come in this baby, Jesus – God with us, alongside us, bringing in the kingdom almost by stealth, inviting people to follow him and join his work to bring in justice for all people.

Simeon and Anna see the first signs of the light of Christ in the world – a light that will grow and will challenge all the dark places of the world. Jesus will grow into the man who fights sickness, isolation, who offers release for the captives of regret, history, oppression and evil.
Ultimately Jesus’ fight against injustice will take him to the cross – accepting that the price to be paid in the fight against injustice might be to give up life itself, to demonstrate the power of God which can overcome even death.

The Lord comes to his temple to bring the kingdom of justice – a kingdom that grows steadily as one person after another follows Jesus and becomes a citizen of the kingdom, joining the struggle for justice.

When we accept the bread and wine of communion we accept our part as one of those who work for the kingdom to come – a part of the body of Christ which is always working for peace, love and justice to prevail.

And so we cannot consign God’s promise to the past and forget that God is present here and now and is still demanding justice.
We cannot wait for God to act without us, but recognise God with us and within us challenging us to be part of the work for justice.
And we cannot claim that we must remain impartial while innocent children in Gaza are subjected to injustice and inhumanity.

As Malachi promised and as Simeon and Anna witnessed, the Lord God appears in his temple and demands justice from us.
May God’s love and presence strengthen us to follow Jesus
In his name