Thursday, 28 April 2011

& the second half of 'Easter 2'

The first half of the sermon is in the previous post - here's the second half!
(but if you want to play a little game you could read the second half first & see if it makes more sense that way round!)

(continued notes..)

I really like this story – not just for what it tells us about Thomas, but for what it tells us about the other disciples. For me, this story pokes holes in the idea that the early church had it all right and we get it all wrong.

On Easter Sunday, all the disciples except Thomas & Judas are locked in the room ‘for fear of the Jews’. According to John’s gospel, they have heard from Simon & John about the empty tomb and then they have heard from Mary Magdalene, who has seen & even spoken with the risen Jesus. Still, they’re unsure, still, they are afraid.
These stories may have poked some holes in their darkness, but they’re still not completely sure they can live in the light of the resurrection.

Then Jesus appears and they rejoice. Jesus says to them ‘As the Father sent me so I send you - receive the Holy Spirit’.
Maybe more holes appear in the darkness: but when they tell Thomas he is unconvinced, and a week later they are back again (only this time with Thomas) sat in the room behind closed doors.

Jesus has to appear again to convince Thomas that the light is shining in the darkness: and maybe this second appearance, as well as the appearances that John mentions to us but doesn’t describe, are needed by the disciples before they can really believe in Jesus as the son of God who has risen from death & who is telling them to tell the world.

We sometimes tell the Easter story as if the joy of new life and resurrection dawns on Jesus friends all at once. But the gospels tell us accounts of stories, and hints, and possibilities, and various appearances of the risen Jesus. Each pokes a new home in the darkness, each lets a little more light in.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we struggle to understand and we struggles to share the story ourselves.

The darkness can seem overwhelming: the darkness of grief, or hopelessness, of fear, of pain. But Jesus is alive – the darkness has been overcome – and every hope we have and every story we hear can poke another hole in the darkness until there is enough light to really see the eternal life Jesus offers.

May God grant us light for our way and bless us so that we may poke holes in the darkness of this world and bring light to others, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Easter 2 thoughts so far...

It's a funny old week - with Holidays Monday & Friday.
Here are my thoughts so far about
John 20: 19-31
1 Peter 1: 3-9

I am grateful to a fellow blogger for bringing my attention to this story

“There is a widely told story about Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, who suffered ill health as a child. One night the nurse found him up, out of bed, with his nosed pressed against the window. ‘Come here, child,’ she said to him, ‘you’ll catch your death of cold.’ But he wouldn’t budge. Instead he sat, mesmerized, watching a lamplighter slowly working his way through the black night, lighting each gas street light along his route. Pointing to him, Robert said,
‘See, look there; there’s a man poking holes in the darkness.’”

And so my theme for this week has to be ‘poking holes in the darkness’.

Just 2 days after all the joy of Easter Sunday, on Tuesday, I had to lead a funeral for a 41 year old dance teacher. The church was full, the congregation were largely younger people – including quite a number of Sam’s former pupils, and friends of her 16 year old daughter. Emotions were high, as you would expect – and suddenly it seemed that the message of Easter Sunday was more important than ever. My task at that funeral was to help people to give thanks to God for Sam’s life, but also to ‘poke holes in the darkness’ and talk about the promise of Jesus that ‘where I am, there you will be also’. Since Jesus is alive, we can reasonably hope that Sam, too, is alive. This doesn’t take away the grief, but I believe it pokes some holes of the light of hope in the darkness of grieving.

In our gospel reading today, Thomas is not with the others when the risen Jesus first appears to them. So they excitedly tell him "We have seen the Lord.".
But he wants to poke holes in their argument: ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." .
I find it hard to criticise Thomas for his doubts – he is of course being perfectly reasonable in thinking that Jesus, who was dead, will remain dead: this is what normally happens. This is the darkness of the reality of death.

But then Jesus appears a second time, and confronts Thomas with the hope of resurrection life. This doesn’t just poke holes in Thomas’ darkness, it dispels it utterly, and Thomas the doubter becomes Thomas who “gets it” as he proclaims ‘my Lord and my God’.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Easter Sunday notes

After a wonderful Maundy Thursday - exploring the resonances between Passover & the Last Supper & Communion; and then a very simple but moving Good Friday, I'm finally ready to post Easter Sunday's sermon. the readings are:
Colossians 3: 1-4
Matthew 28: 1-10
& a good chunk of Henry Scott Holland!

Easter Sunday
Death is nothing at all…
So begins the very popular poem, often requested by grieving relatives, written by Henry Scott-Holland, canon of St Paul’s Cathedral from 1884.
I struggle with the words ‘death is nothing at all’ – even while I warm to the idea that our loved ones are not as utterly lost in death as we might fear they are.

Death is nothing at all – but if that was really true, we wouldn’t want to hear those soothing words at all, would we? We know that death is terrible, unknowable, frightening. So what is Scott-Holland doing telling us that death is nothing at all?

Well, for a start those words are taken out of context. The words come from a sermon preached at St Paul's Cathedral on Sunday 15th May 1910, shortly after the death of King Edward VII. Entitled King of Terrors, Scott Holland’s text was 1 John 3.2,3: “Beloved, we are God’s children now: what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is.....”.

In the sermon, Scott Holland is contrasting our two opposing ways of viewing death – as a terrible event and yet, as a source of hope for new life and continuing love .

This is what he actually says in his sermon
“I suppose all of us hover between two ways of regarding death, which appear to be in hopeless contradiction with each other. First, there is the familiar and instinctive recoil from it as embodying the supreme and irrevocable disaster...... How often it smites, without discrimination, as if it had no law! It makes its horrible breach in our gladness with careless and inhuman disregard of us. ... Its shadow falls across our natural sunlight, and we are swept off into some black abyss.....So we cry in our angry protest, in our bitter anguish......
But, then, there is another aspect altogether which death can wear for us. It is that which first comes down to us, perhaps, as we look down upon the quiet face, so cold and white, of one who has been very near and dear to us.... And what the face says to us in its sweet silence to us as a last message from the one whom we loved is: “Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room..”.

So this Easter morning I am not going to say ‘death is nothing at all’ – for that is only one side of all that we feel about death. Yet the rising of Christ from the dead tells us that our hope is not empty.

I cannot yet say death is nothing at all, but I can say Death is not the final word,
death is not the end,
death is not a calamity but a release,
death is defeated
death is dead.

The resurrection of Jesus tells us something vital about Jesus and his relationship with God the Father. It tells us that all the things he said about being the Son of God, the one sent by God, the one who lives in God: all these things are true.
Jesus is not just the man murdered unjustly on Good Friday – he is God himself, giving up his human life for us, but then risen and living and alive for all time and space.
Going back to Henry Scott-Holland’s text from the first letter of John:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now: what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is.....”.

Or as we heard from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:
“you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

The resurrection of Jesus Christ doesn’t just tell us things about Jesus, the Son of God – it tells us things about ourselves, because Jesus promises that we are also children of God.

Jesus is alive. Death is not the ruler here – and so we are promised eternal life in Jesus – we can be part of his resurrection life just as his followers were part of his earthly life.

On Easter Sunday we declare that Christ is risen indeed.
We declare that death is defeated.
Maybe, by the grace of God’s love, we can even get to a point of declaring ‘death is nothing at all’.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Easter laughter

I love the tradition of telling jokes on easter Sunday - to show that we laugh at death.
So here's an Easter giggle for you: "Less ambitious hymns"

I vow to thee, my county

Thin be the Glory

Most of my hope on God is founded (and I wish it would make me stronger, I really do)

What a Facebook friend we have in Jesus

Our God is an Okay God

Lord, you have my left ventricle

Hail thee, regular day

O Little Town of Basildon

Go tell it on the mole hill

Blessed Insurance

Send me general directions, O Great Redeemer

We Three Kings, Disoriented Are

Come, now is the time to workshop

Crown him with half a crown

How satisfactory Thou Art

They’ll Know We Are Christians By the Fish on Our Cars

Be Thou My Vision Express

I Lib-Dem-Vow to thee, my country

I suspect that my Redeemer lives

Actually, a rather noisy night. Have you never given birth in a stable? Jesus Christ!

Mundane Things of Thee are Spoken

The Nuneaton Carol

I have decided to follow Jesus on Sunday mornings

Our dog is a great big dog.

If I were a low-fat-spread-fly

People have recommended you as a holiday destination, Zion city of our God

Friday, 15 April 2011

Palm Sunday notes

Philippians 2: 5-11
Matthew 21: 1-11

I haven't even proof-read this - but it all adds to the entertainment factor!
Very rough first draft:

Palm Sunday
What does power look like? This is fascinating time in the world’s history to ask that question on Palm Sunday.

We have seen amazing scenes from the Middle East & North Africa over the last 3 months or so. People kept subdued for many years by the evil and oppression of tyrants, suddenly starting to believe in “people power”, and calling for change and the bringing in of a democracy.

In Egypt, the people packed into Tahrir square and would not leave until there was change.. and eventually Mubarak resigned; in Libya rebels continue to fight for control of towns and call for Colonel Gaddafi to relinquish power; in Tunisia President Ben Ali fled the country 2 months ago but now protestors are saying there has been no real change; President Assad of Syria has formed a new government following the resignation of the previous government following protests; in Bahrain King Hamad acted to clear protestors out of the capital Manama & imposed a state of emergency; and we could also talk about Morocco, Yemen, Oman, Iran, and Algeria.

It seems that those who have previously held power for many years have suddenly faced mass protest. Why? It would take someone far more informed politically than me to answer that question in detail – but it seems that part of what has happened is the belief that people can make a difference – that if enough people are mobilised onto the street there is very little the authorities can really do against their own people. Power in many of these countries largely belongs to the one who controls the armed forces, but if enough groundswell of public opinion can be generated, then even the powerful can be overcome by ‘people power’.

I wonder how different it was in 1st century Jerusalem? Herod may have been the ‘client ruler’ or puppet king at the time of Jesus birth, but his political power had now passed to his three far less effective sons, whilst a Roman governor – Pontius Pilate – had been put in place. Pilate, who ruled Judea, had control of the armed forces of the empire, or at least his share of them. He was ultimately responsible for law & order – and used this power to put down any attempt at riot or defiance with great violence. Crucifixion was the public method of humiliation and execution for any rebels who might want to rally a protest, as well as being a terrible warning to thieves and bandits.
The historian Josephus mentions over a dozen rebel bandit figures, like ‘Judas the Galilean’ and ‘The Egyptian’. Each rebellion and its ensuing wave of crucifixions, brought an increasing sense of political unrest, until eventually, after Jesus death in AD 66 there would be a huge revolt resulting in the destruction of the Temple as a means of crushing all Jewish political hopes.
So what does Jesus do on Palm Sunday?
He could, I suppose have tried to rally the 1st century equivalent of ‘people power’ – to whip up the zealots that we know he had in his group of disciples to get together gangs of those intent on political change, maybe even to find a way of arming some of the Jews against the Roman soldiers who patrolled the streets. Instead Jesus places himself firmly in the place of the promised Messiah – riding the donkey promised by Zechariah, entering David’s city of Jerusalem, acclaimed by crowds. He looks every inch the Messiah of God – but then he refuses to save the people by any show of military power.
He will say very clearly to Pilate at his trial “my kingdom is not of this world”.
At one level, the crowd on Palm Sunday know what Jesus is doing – they don’t cry ‘Romans out!’ or ‘Judea must be free’, they cry ‘Hosanna’ – Lord, save us. Jesus is the promised Messiah from God, the one who will bring life and hope and salvation for his people, and through them, for the world.
What the crowds can’t grasp, because it is totally unprecedented, is that to display the saving power of God, Jesus will submit to suffering and death. This act, that would seem like the end of any ordinary rebellion, and the death of all hope, brings Jesus’ followers face to face with real power.
Jesus receives the acclaim of the crowds, he owns the title of Messiah, and he shows them a new way of displaying power. his is not earthly power, people power or political power, it is much more powerful than that.

Jesus dies in humility and submission and terrible pain. But the power of the Jewish authorities to convict him and the power of the Roman soldiers to kill him is no match for the power of God Almighty.
The power of God will have the last word, when Jesus is raised from death to show once and for all to whom the power belongs.
To God belongs all the power and glory – and such amazing love that Jesus will let human hands take him and crucify him, to show once and for all that the power of God’s love is the greatest power in heaven or on earth or under the earth.
That love offers us bread & wine here as a way of receiving God’s love in Christ. Eat & drink & be thankful.
And to God be all the glory now & forever. Amen.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Brief refection for Lent 5

Reflection on Ezekiel 37: 1-14

Even beautifully read like that, this is one of the weirdest stories in the Bible, I think.
But I think it’s got a lot to offer us, today.

We have been thinking about the wonder of God’s creation, about our place in caring for it, and we have confessed the need to mend the damage which humankind has caused to the world.

And maybe it’s because Easter is late this year & so it feels such a long time since the last holiday
or maybe it’s because the news of unrest and tsunami and shootings seems relentless
or maybe it’s because Lent forces us to face up to our mortality and fear
.. but I can really relate to those dry bones – scattered, useless, dessicated.

Ezekiel is shown them because the Lord wants his people to know that even though they feel scattered and worthless now, they will be brought back to their land and their God will not abandon them. God breathes new life into the bones, just as he will breathe new life into the people of Israel.

Resurrection is God’s gift to those who need it most. New life, new power, new hope.
We know that this is what Ezekiel saw, we know it is what Jesus promised when he raised Lazarus, and we now it is how the Lent and Easter story ends.

When we look at our world and feel helpless, we need to turn to God, whose power can fill us with new life and new resolve.

So hear the word of the Lord – and be enabled to act to cherish our world.
Hear the word of the Lord – and receive strength for life.
Hear the word of the Lord – and get ready to celebrate the Easter joy of death overcome by new life.
Hear the word of the Lord – and rise up, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Final notes for April 3rd

It's felt like hard work this week, putting these final thoughts together - but here they are at last:

1 Samuel 16:1-13 , John 9:1-41
Seeing is a complex business.
I’ve worn glasses since I was 7 and remember being very puzzled by our lovely family optician, Mr Low, saying to my mum “she’s very short-sighted, but she uses her eyes well”.
Seeing is not just dependent on how well our eyes function, but also involves what we make of the images our eyes detect.

So I wonder what we each see in today’s Bible readings. There's so much in there about seeing & not seeing & how we can 'see' what God sees.

The reading from the book of Samuel tells us the story of David being 'selected' by God, through Samuel’s anointing. Looking at the seven sons of Jesse, Samuel is sure that one of these fine specimens is the chosen king to replace Saul.
But the Lord tells Samuel – ‘the Lord does not see as mortals see: they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart'.
None of the seven is chosen, and Samuel asks if there’s another son – little number eight, little David is out looking after the sheep. Of course when he appears it is David who is selected.

But then did you spot the description that David was 'ruddy, and had beautiful eyes & was handsome'. God may have chosen him for his heart, but the teller of the story also wants us to know about his outward appearance, and to know that he was good-looking.
The Lord does not see as mortals see. We are obsessed with appearance and status and outward beauty – but God sees us as we are. God chooses us for our heart, not our face. God loves us for who we are. Can we see what God wants us to see? Can we learn to see others as God sees us – as people who are utterly lovable, however we may appear? It’s a real challenge, it involves an act of will as it goes against our natural instinct. Yet how often, when we’ve taken the time to get to know someone, do we find that someone whom we didn’t find attractive at first meeting is actually, deep down, not as they appeared.
Meanwhile John’s gospel tells us the story of Jesus healing a man born blind. Here is someone who at the start of the story cannot see at all, and yet learns to see in more than one way. He is healed – to see the world around him, and he also perceives who Jesus is, who has given him his sight.

John wants us to know how amazing this story is – Jesus doesn’t just restore sight in someone who has lost it – he gives sight as a completely new gift, to someone who has never seen before.

Jesus is then criticised by the Pharisees for healing the man on the Sabbath, and as they question the man born blind (twice!) and his parents they are torn between seeing Jesus as a sinner, because he did this work on the Sabbath, and seeing Jesus as someone sent from God because otherwise how could he do this work of healing at all.

It is the healed man, in the second interview, who says ‘Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing’.

So this story becomes more than just a story of a healing but becomes a story dealing with the question of who is 'seeing' and who is not seeing Jesus for who he really is.
The man who was blind can now see – and sees that only the one from God can do what Jesus does.

Can we see what God wants us to see, here?

Can we see how Jesus brings God’s love into the world – healing, making whole, bringing light in the darkness and breaking free of the rules which tie people in knots.

The eyes of the Pharisees may work, but they are struggling to see Jesus as he is. They see trouble, they see a rule-breaker, they see disruption to the status quo.

What do we see? And what would it mean for us to see Jesus as the Son of God?

John says, of Jesus, in his prologue to the gospel:
“He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

Can we see as the blind man sees? Can we believe in Jesus as the one from God, as he does?
And so can we accept that we are the beloved and precious children of God. Because when we believe in Jesus as the one sent from God with a message of salvation for the world, the consequence is that we begin to see ourselves and others in a whole new way.

Here is Jesus – come to heal & love.
We know that as we continue to travel through Lent we will be faced with the stories of how the criticism of Jesus and the conflict around Jesus’ identity come to their final climax with his death on the cross.
Some eyes will never see who Jesus is – but others will be opened by the marvel of the resurrection.

Today is Mothering Sunday.
I realise that the celebration of mothering and motherhood can bring us mixed feelings, because our earthly mothers and some experiences of being a mother can never be perfect. But these readings encourage us to see motherhood and parenthood in a new way.

If we see who Jesus is, and what that can mean to us, and if we see how God sees his children, perhaps we can dare to believe that God sees each of us as a precious, adored, child: that God looks on us with the eyes of an adoring mother. We are children of God.
That's how God sees us & that's why God comes to die for us.

Now do you see?

Thanks be to God for the gift of sight.