Monday, 28 March 2011

Towards Lent 4

Readings for lent 4 (Lent, not Mothering Sunday readings) are:

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

There's so much hear about seeing & not seeing & how we 'see' what God sees.
The Samuel reading is the one about David being 'selected' by God - with that memorable phrase that 'God does not see as mortals see - because mortals only see the outward appearance' - then David is selected and the description is that he was 'ruddy, and had lovely eyes & was handsome' - just the outward description, then!

Meanwhile jesus heals a man born blind - and is criticised by the PHarisees for healing on the Sabbath - so the story becomes a question of who is 'seeing' and not seeing Jesus.

Can we see as God sees? Can we see others as God does?
There is a link to Mothering Sunday here - can we see other with the eyes of an adoring mother?
Can we dare to believe that that is how God sees us - as a precious, adored, child.
That's how God sees us & that's why God comes to die for us.
Now do you see?

Friday, 25 March 2011

Lent 3 notes

Lent 3
In the Lent groups last week we were looking at what brought us each to faith – whether there where things we had in common, or whether our stories were quite different.

In the group I was in I think one of the things that we felt we had in common was a sense of having, at some stage in your life, to make a choice for yourself about God and about Jesus. Did you believe the stuff you have heard? – or not.

As we hear John telling is the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well, we might feel that here is a familiar sort of story . Jesus meets a woman, they get to talking about something ordinary - water – but slowly the woman realizes that this person Jesus is extraordinary and it slowly dawns on her that he could be the Messiah. And so off she goes to tell other people what she has found.

If you look at the gospel of John as a whole, you find that this idea of meeting Jesus and having to decide for yourself what you think is a recurring theme. John uses a recurring pattern of encounters with Jesus which lead either to belief in him, or to conflict.

John makes no secret of the reason for his gospel, towards the end (after the resurrection) he writes “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”. Throughout the gospel John refers to many things that Jesus did not as miracles, but as ‘signs’, which help people to believe in him as the Messiah from God.
So how do these signs and the theme of conflict work to convince us about Jesus?
Fasten your seat-belts for a whistle-stop tour.

John begins by setting his stall out in the prologue - he is clear about who Jesus is: and equally clear that John the Baptist in NOT the Messiah.
Then comes the first 'sign' that Jesus is the Messiah (the turning of water into wine at the wedding at Cana) followed immediately by Jesus overturning the tables (a story that John puts near the start of Jesus’ ministry, not near the end as others do).
Jesus next has the conversation with Nicodemus (which the lectionary had us read last week), followed by an argument about baptism.

Then Jesus has today’s conversation with the woman at the well, and this is closely followed by the second sign (the healing of official's son) & the third sign (the healing of the man at the pool of Bethsaida ) followed by an argument about healing on the Sabbath & statements about Jesus' authority. Next come the fourth sign (the feeding of the 5000) & the fifth sign (Jesus walking on the water), and these are followed by 'grumbles' about Jesus saying he is the bread of life.

There then follows a really strange interlude about Jesus' brothers trying to force him into the open at the festival of shelters (ch 7) & Jesus' teaching there, followed by the much better known story of the woman caught in adultery, which results in more conflict, concluding with people picking up stones to kill Jesus (end of ch 8).

The sixth sign is the healing of the man born blind (again, on a Sabbath), followed by the Pharisees investigating the event.
Jesus teaches about his being 'the good shepherd' & this is followed by the rejection of Jesus & more threats of stoning.

The seventh sign is the raising of Lazarus, followed by more talk of 'the plot to kill Jesus', the anointing of Jesus by a woman, before his death, at Bethany, and a plot to kill Lazarus, so that the seventh sign won’t be able to be proved.

The final chapters of the gospel are taken up with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem & the last week of Jesus' life, including the longest stretch of teaching from the Last Supper in any of the gospels.

It seems to me there is a constant ebb & flow of signs of Jesus' identity & people 'believing in him' with the opposition to Jesus. Given that John himself says that the purpose of the gospel is that people will put their faith in Jesus as Messiah & have eternal life, perhaps it is not surprising that John won't let us sit on the fence about Jesus, but forces a choice - Jesus is the son of God to believe in, or Jesus is a heretic to be eliminated?
This was the choice facing the woman at the well, the choice facing everyone who met Jesus, the choice facing us. Indifference is not an option. Will you reject Jesus, decide this is all just nonsense? Or will you believe in Jesus as the Son of God who can do and say these amazing things that show us the light of God’s love?

John is also clear about the danger of believing – with the decision to believe in Jesus comes the promise to follow him in walking in God’s love, and the responsibility to care for others in Jesus’ name.

If you’re ready to take the risk of believing, the good news is he’s here for you in bread & wine – to feed and strengthen you in your choice.

So eat & drink & be very thankful.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

John's gospel

Yes - all of it!

Looking at today's lectionary reading (Jesus & Nicodemus - John ch 3) in context yesterday I realised something about the 'shape' of John's gospel that I don't think had hit me before.
i knew about John's use of the symbolism of water.
I knew about the 'signs' that John draws attention to - the wedding at Cana, the healing of the man born blind, raising of Lazarus, etc (7 of them, if I remember correctly).
But what I don't think I'd noticed before was the recurring conflict:

John begins by setting his stall out in the prologue - he is clear about who Jesus is: and equally clear that John the Baptist in NOT the Messiah. Then comes the first 'sign' (wedding at Cana) followed immediately by Jesus overturning the tables; the conversation with Nicodemus, followed by an argument about baptism; the woman at the well, the second sign (healing of official's son) & third (healing of the man at the pool of Bethzatha), followed by an argument about healing on the sabbath & statements about Jesus' authority; the fourth sign (feeding 5000) & fifth (walking on the water), followed by 'grumbles' about Jesus saying he is the bread of life & a real weird interlude about Jesus' brothers trying to force him into the open at the festival of shelters (ch 7) & Jesus' teaching there, followed by the much better known story of the woman caught in adultery & more conflict, concluding with people picking up stones to kill Jesus (end of ch 8); the sixth sign is the healing of the man born blind (again, on a sabbath), followed by the Pharisees investigating the event, Jesus teaching about 'the good shepherd' & the rejection on Jesus & more threats of stoning; the seventh sign is the raising of Lazarus, followed by more talk of 'the plot to kill Jesus', the annointing at Bethany, a plot to kill Lazarus, & then the triumphal entry into Jerusalem & the last week of Jesus' life.

It seems to me there is a constant ebb & flow of signs of Jesus' identity & people 'believing in him' with the opposition to Jesus. Given that John himself says (20: 30) that the purpose of the gospel is that people will put their faith in Jesus as Messiah & have eternal life, perhaps it is not surprising that John won't let us sit on the fence about Jesus, but forces a choice - Jesus is the son of God to believe in, or Jesus is a heretic to be eliminated.

One of next weeks services is an all-age service, and I'd really like to get people thinking about these different 'episodes' and how John tells the story and forces us to choose.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Lent 2 notes

Apologies that there's been no 'thinking' going on here this week: one of those weeks where I have been wrestling with a combination of the texts & all the stuff going on in the world - but not found time to actually post: so here we are 'fully formed' - but I still reserve the right to preach around these notes, rather then read them!

Readings are Genesis 12: 1-4a
John 3: 1-17

Jesus & Nicodemus Lent 2
Some weeks when we come to meet with God in worship it feels as if our heads are just full of unanswerable questions. Civil war in Libya and UN involvement in yet another country; tragedy upon tragedy for Japan; and some of the most heart-breaking stories of suffering – especially of children – on Friday’s Comic Relief Day. Why does it happen? How should we respond? Where is God in all this?

So how are we meant to listen to the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night – and that knotty phrase it contains where Jesus says that ‘you must be born again’ or ‘born from above’.

What on earth is Jesus on about? This isn’t the sort of teaching that Nicodemus, a Pharisee is risking his neck to hear. All through John’s gospel there is a constant questioning of who this Jesus is. John speaks of the ‘signs’ by which people come to believe in Jesus.
The first of these signs – the changing of water into wine at Cana – has just happened as the story of Nicodemus is told, and Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus by saying ‘no-one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God’. Nicodemus comes to this teacher from God – Jesus – to find some answers. What is the main thing Jesus wants to teach? Be born again. Nicodemus certainly misses the point ‘can a person enter the mother’s womb & be born a second time?’. If he was a man of our times Nicodemus would almost certainly say ‘eeuw!’.

But it seems that Jesus is wanting to help Nicodemus to see that following Jesus, believing in him, trusting him, will turn his whole life upside down & make it as if his life was starting again from scratch.

Nicodemus comes with his flannel and flattery “I know you are a good teacher” – and Jesus cuts him off in mid sentence. Jesus doesn’t want a fan club, he wants disciples. He doesn’t want clever people nodding their heads at what he says – he wants people prepared to stake their whole existence on the message that he brings – that God’s love is a free gift of astonishing grace and that accepting that love is the most important thing you can do with your life.

Nicodemus is a man of learning and letter and law. He knows – or he thinks he knows – what it is that God has required of people – careful adherence to the commandments and a concern for doing what is righteous. But Nicodemus is in for a huge shock. He’s not the first – we heard the beginning of the story of Abraham, from the Bible’s very first book. Leave your land and your family and go…
Without even a destination in mind, Abraham agrees to go wherever God calls.
This is the sort of whole-hearted following that Jesus is asking for from Nicodemus – a new life, a new place, a new goal – like having your whole life turned upside down and beginning again.

Poor Nicodemus – still left with so many questions. What sort of new life, and how can he be sure that he will like it, once his life begins again? But Jesus asks for trust – this is what he has come into the world for – ‘God so loved the world he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life’.
Jesus doesn’t promise answers, he promises life in all its fullness.

But for us in 2011 it almost seems obscene to be thinking about these questions – what does ‘born again’ mean?; what is eternal life? ; how do we follow Jesus? – when the world is in such turmoil.
The people of Japan are painfully aware of the huge trauma of having your life turned upside down by something outside your control. And so our minds may be teeming with other, even more difficult questions – why earthquakes and tsunamis?, why death & disaster?, why sickness and misery?

But Jesus points us to a response to our questions that goes beyond trying to satisfy our sense of justice, or our scientific sensibilities, or our yearning for truth. Allow your world to be turned upside down – stop looking for a reason why God allows this, and trust instead that God cares deeply for each human life.
I was interested to hear that the Shinto Buddhists of Japan do not torment themselves with the questions ‘why has this earthquake happened?’ – they simply accept that natural forces are stronger than they can imagine – and so the ground will shake and the force of a tsunami will wash life away. And the question that then remains is – how will you help your neighbour?
Jesus tells Nicodemus to start again in life and let go of the search for legal correctness in favour of grace and love. And maybe Jesus tells us the same.

You may find this the most unsatisfying answer to your questions about the state of the world – but here it is ‘the state of the world is the state of the world – yet among the wreckage of our personal lives and the life of the world, Jesus offers the hand of love’.

When our world is turned upside down – either because we choose to start again or because change is forced upon us – Jesus invites us to trust him, to walk with him – to receive this bread & wine - & to know that we are loved.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Sermon notes Lent 1

Reading: Matthew 4: 1-11

Lent. The annual decision about whether we should give something up, or take something up: the time of lent studies and groups and lunches…and always the sense of ticking down towards Easter, and trying to be ready to make sense, again, of this story that is the most vital one of our Christian faith... and yet the most demanding.

As Lent begins, we hear again the story of Jesus beginning his public ministry by resisting the temptations placed before him by Satan. Each of these temptations concern the question of how Jesus will conduct his ministry.

1. ‘Turn these stone to bread’
Jesus has to decide whether he will perform miracles just for his own satisfaction or to gain the attention of the crowds. But he resists with the words ‘Human beings cannot live by bread alone’

2. ‘Throw yourself from the temple heights’
As the son of God, Jesus could call upon his heavenly father to protect him from all that being human might entail – to be caught by angels as he throws himself down. But again Jesus resists, saying ‘you shall not put the Lord your God to the test’.

3. ‘Bow down and worship me’
Jesus has to decide whether he will compromise his message, to make things easier for people to hear, to keep himself safer – he could seek power through using the wiles of the world. But instead Jesus remembers his determined focus on the kingdom of God, as he quotes the commandment ‘You shall have no other God before me’.

Each time he is tempted, Jesus has an answer which shows his intention to conduct his ministry in God’s way. As Jesus’ ministry unfolds, this determination is demonstrated in the way Jesus lives and acts, not only by his words. Jesus lives out his resistance to evil.
We can think of examples for each of the temptations:

1. ‘Turn these stone to bread’.
After the feeding of the 5000, Jesus tells his disciples “I am the bread of life”, and at the Last Supper with his disciples Jesus shares bread with them all and says ‘this is my body, broken for you’. Jesus is not interested in performing miracles as a way to gain a massive following, but only as a way of pointing to the importance of what he is offering – life in all its fullness through his self-offering.

2. ‘Throw yourself from the temple heights’
Far from allowing God the father to protect him from the difficulty of life, Jesus allows himself to be lifted high on the cross, in great pain, to die for love of the world. From the cross, Jesus will hear again the words ‘If you are the son of God…come down from the cross and save yourself’. Yet Jesus is not interested in saving his own skin, but the world he loves.

3. ‘Bow down and worship me’
Jesus has to resist the temptation to worldy power. And, again, at the last supper, Jesus will bow down – as he stoops to wash the disciples’ feet. He demonstrates that his ministry is not about wielding power, but about serving others, and he sets the example of servanthood for all who will follow him.

Jesus shows, both in the answers he gives when he is tempted, and in the way he lives out that determination to choose God’s path, what it truly means to be the Son of God. Jesus is the one who will give himself, not perform tricks to impress people, who will stick with God’s will even when it leads to suffering, and who will be the servant of all, not the one with all the power and the glory.

As we move through Lent we can continue to reflect on these statements about Jesus’ identity and purpose and mission. We will continue to see God’s will in the ordinary things of life, and in the broken, and in the self-sacrificial. This Lent we might want to work out our own response to the Jesus that we meet, individually and as a church.
What does it mean for us to turn our backs on slick tricks which might impress others, and instead offer, deeply, all that we are?
How can we find and do God’s will, even when that means taking the hard path, or being unappreciated or even vilified?
Who are we called to serve in the name of Christ and as the body of Christ, and how can we resist the temptation to do what brings us glory, not what glorifies God?

May the Holy Spirit guide us to develop and live out our own discipleship of Christ and resistance to temptation, throughout Lent & Easter.


Tuesday, 8 March 2011

First Sunday of Lent

We have a 'creative church service based on the theme : “If you are the Son of God…”

Reading: Matthew 4: 1-11

As we talked about the temptations as a planning group, we realised that as well as what Jesus said to Satan to resist temptation, he also lived his resistance in different ways - he acted out his resistance to temptation as his life & ministry continued.
So we wil have three 'stations' to explor
1. ‘Turn these stone to bread’
Reflection on the Last Supper – “I am the bread of life”
With chunky bread to share.

2. ‘Throw yourself from the temple heights’
Reflection on Jesus being lifted up on the cross
Making crosses from wire & nails

3. ‘Bow down and worship me’
Jesus stoops to wash the disciples’ feet
Washing one another’s hands

Our gathering thoughts will reflect on what it truly means for Jesus to be the Son of God – and how we can reflect on that & develop and live out our own resistance to temptation, through Lent & Easter.

I am so struck by this new way of looking at the Temptation of Christ that I think my sermon for the 'main' service will also explore this.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Transfiguration/St David's Day

Exodus 24: 12-18
Matthew 17: 1-9

I wonder how you would respond if someone asked where you find God?
Some people would point to amazing places – I remember some friends being utterly bowled over by the Grand Canyon: personally I find the sands around the causeway to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne very special.
Some people might say they find God in amazing feelings: John Wesley, founder of Methodism spoke of his heart being ‘strangely warmed’, I have heard people talk about a sudden rush of a sense of love, or of worship which helped them feel they had found God.
Other people might talk about finding God in amazing people – saints whose lives we read about in history books, or people we know or have known ourselves.
And a final group of people might say they find God in the quietness of a church.. or a forest.. or their own room.

There are no right & wrong answers of course, and it is amazing to reflect on the great variety of ways in which people become aware of the presence of God.

The story we heard of the disciples experiencing the transfiguration of Jesus seems to combine an amazing place, amazing feelings and an amazing person – as Jesus is changed in front of their eyes and they see him as God’s own son.
The disciples are up a mountain with Jesus. They know their Hebrew scriptures, they know that up a mountain is the place to meet with God – just as we heard in our reading from Exodus. What is strange and different is that they meet God in Jesus and see him in a different way than they ever have before.
They might hope to meet with God on the mountain with Jesus, but in fact they meet God on the mountain in Jesus.

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
Jesus came and touched 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.

In a sense this story says a lot about why the disciples believed in Jesus – especially as they reflected on this experience in the light of two very similar experiences of finding God with them: before this event, at Jesus’ baptism, and after this event, at Jesus’ resurrection.
The transfiguration helps the followers of Jesus to understand more about who Jesus is – God with them in a human being. But it might leave us wondering how we – who cannot have this experience – might come to believe in Jesus as God with us.

After his resurrection and ascension, Jesus is no longer physically present on earth – so we cannot experience what Peter, James & John experienced – but Jesus leaves a new body on earth – the church. The church is called the body of Christ because in it we can still see God with us – God at work in the world.

The historical saints of the church are a part of this body which can be known to us. So we remember St David today.

There is a story told of St David that on one occasion he was preaching to a large crowd of people and God caused the ground beneath his feet to rise up to from a hill, so that more people could see and hear David.
Whatever the truth of that story, there is no doubt that in the life of David people saw Jesus at work – teaching, caring, telling people about God’s love.

Sometimes it can feel as if saints as those whose lives have been so holy and so extraordinary that we can only marvel at them and feel inadequate. But saints are really those people who have reflected God’s glory in their lives – who have loved with the love God gives them – and to a greater or a lesser extent we can all do that.

God may not cause the ground to lift us up when we speak, but we can be unafraid to lift up our voices to tell others what we know. We can be courageous to say when, where and in whom we have found God, we can share the ways in which we have experienced something of God’s love.
We have not had the extraordinary experience of witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus, which the disciples had. But thanks to their account and to the whole gospel 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. And we can point other people towards the glimpses of God’s glory that we have seen – and listen to the stories others tell – and learn more about God’s presence with us in Jesus.

As Lent begins next week, can we find ways to deepen our knowledge of Jesus, explore his identity more fully, and share our stories with others?

Here today at the table of the Lord we are welcomed and invited to share in remembering his life and death and resurrection as we celebrate with this bread and wine. May we know God with us here…and everywhere. Amen.

Friday, 4 March 2011

..but first it's Friday!

Women's World Day of Prayer.
The readings chosen by the women of Chile are:
Deuteronomy 8: 7-10
1 Kings 17: 8-16
Mark 6: 30-44

This is what I'm saying:

I’m always happy to talk at a Women’s World Day of Prayer service – but I nearly always have to start by saying I don’t know every much about the country we’re thinking about. I’m sure I don’t know anymore about Chile than most of you – I have unfortunately never been there – but it is a country I find fascinating and amazing.
Those of you who have had time to read the information inside the order of the service may have been as shocked as I was to read that the country is 110 miles wide and 2,640 miles long – it also includes in its possession Easter Island, 2,200 miles form the mainland in the Pacific. Transport is notoriously difficult in such a long, thin country.
80% of the country is mountainous – including the Andes range, which separates it from Argentina – and there are over 600 volcanoes: 10% of whoch have erupted at least once in the past 100 years. We know, from the news, about the most recent large earthquake in February last year, when 521 people died and half a million homes were damaged.
For the vast majority of people, Chile is a hard place to live.

So I was quite surprised to see that the women of Chile had chosen as our first Bible reading the part of Deuteronomy where we hear how God will provide for his people. It might sound a bit unrealistic or patronising – God will give you a good land, plenty of food, you will lack nothing. But remember that this promise come to the people fo Israel after they have escaped slavery in Egypt, wandered for 40 years in the desert, and survived shortage of food and water, and times of great disheartening when they wished they were back in Egypt. This people knows life can be terrible hard, but through it all they have learnt that God will provide.

Our second reading also talks about God providing in hard times. Elijah is fleeing for his life and come to Zarephath where he asks a widow to feed him. She is gathering her last scraps to have a final meal before she gives in to starvation: but Elijah tells her to trust that god will provide – and the oil and flour continue for many days.

In our gospel reading – the story of the feeding of the 5000 which we know so well – Jesus tells the disciples ‘you give the people something to eat’: but all they have is 5 loaves and 2 fish. Jesus prays, the food is shared and God provides enough for all – with even basketfuls leftover.

Three Bible stories which tell us how God provides for people. But God’s provision is not just for the people and times of the Bible.

I’m sure we find it hard to hear the name ‘Chile’ without now thinking of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for more than 2 months and so wonderfully rescued in October last year. The families prayed at the top of the shaft, the men prayed underground, it felt like the whole world held its breath and prayed – and we saw that God still provides.
I saw very struck at the time that the first thing that had ot happen in the rescue, before any of the men could get out, was that a team of helpers had to go down into the mine. This was an act of incredible bravery: those rescuers had to trust that they wouldn’t simply get stuck with the 33. As stories of life underground have emerged, it seems they were even braver than we knew – as the men in the mine were reporting continual rock falls and instability underground. God provided people with the technical know-how, bravery and trust to get the 33 men out. God provides.

We might think of our own examples of lives where we know that people feel trapped and hopeless. I can’t mention Egypt, as I did at the start, and not think of the upheaval of the political situation on the Middle East. But no situation is ever too hopeless for God. We should listen to the women of Chile and join them in prayer. God will provide. Amen.