Saturday, 31 March 2012

Palm Sunday

Apologies that there have been no thoughts here - and now no sermon: you could of course look at the one I wrote in April 2009 (same readings!).
We have the Bishop coming to lead worship & to preach so my preparation has been of an order of service, getting readers lined up, etc.

Also this week we had (for the first time) a 'Quietly into Easter' service - we tried something similar at Christmas for those who had been bereaved, based on 'Blue Christmas' services which I had seen.
We had about 35 people come & they seemed to find the simplicity & directness of the service helpful. I feel stupid for never thinking before that the message of Easter is exactly the message you need to hear when someone dies - those present certainly listened very intently.

So here's what we did:

Quietly into Easter

Welcome to this service.
Easter is a time of celebrating new birth – but it is also a time of recognising pain and grief. We will reflect quietly tonight on what Easter means, what happened to Jesus, and how God can help us. We will be invited to offer up the pain, the loneliness, the sad and dark memories, and the anxiety and fear to the one knows what pain is and who overcame it to live again… Jesus Christ. We pray that you will find hope and peace in this service and comfort in knowing that you are not alone.

Dear Heavenly Father, we come to you this evening to acknowledge the more difficult feelings we are having at this Easter time. Sometimes we even feel guilty because we have these feelings. The world tells us that Spring is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration and yet it can be some of the darkest times for us. We offer up to you all those things we are feeling and all the situations that worry us and ask that you heal our pains and remove the loneliness. Help us to recognize everything that drags us into the darkness and turn them over to you. May your light, hope and new life come to our hearts & bring us peace. Amen.

Sing: 237 ‘God came in Jesus’

Mark 15: 25-39 ‘The Message’
They nailed him up at nine o'clock in the morning. The charge against him—the king of the Jews—was printed on a poster. Along with him, they crucified two criminals, one to his right, the other to his left. People passing along the road jeered, shaking their heads in mock lament: "You bragged that you could tear down the Temple and then rebuild it in three days—so show us your stuff! Save yourself! If you're really God's Son, come down from that cross!". The high priests, along with the religion scholars, were right there mixing it up with the rest of them, having a great time poking fun at him: "He saved others—but he can't save himself! Messiah, is he? King of Israel? Then let him climb down from that cross. We'll all become believers then!" Even the men crucified alongside him joined in the mockery. At noon the sky became extremely dark. The darkness lasted three hours. At three o'clock, Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?". Some of the bystanders who heard him said, "Listen, he's calling for Elijah." Someone ran off, soaked a sponge in sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down.". But Jesus, with a loud cry, gave his last breath. At that moment the Temple curtain ripped right down the middle. When the Roman captain standing guard in front of him saw that he had quit breathing, he said, "This has to be the Son of God!"

Perhaps the hardest pains in life are when we feel no-one understands what we are going through: when we worry that we are utterly alone.
On the cross, Jesus calls out in pain and desolation. It may be that he was deliberately using the words of a Psalm – psalm 22. It starts with those words
My God, my God why have you forsaken me..
But then the psalm goes on
‘Yet you are holy
In you our fathers trusted;

they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued’.

There is no doubt that Jesus went through real pain & real death, but it seems that he trusted God, his Father, to rescue him. I see no reason why God the Father couldn’t have swooped down and saved him there and then: but he didn’t. Jesus died, and was buried, and only having gone through death was he brought back to new life.
God knows what our suffering feels like – so we are never alone. But only God knows why sometimes the only way out of suffering is to keep going until we come out at the other end.

Hymn 217 When I survey

John 20:11-16 - Easter Sunday morning – 2 nights have passed since Jesus died & the tomb has been found empty – there is no body there.

Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. As she wept, she knelt to look into the tomb and saw two angels sitting there, dressed in white, one at the head, the other at the foot of where Jesus' body had been laid. They said to her, "Woman, why do you weep?". "They took my Master," she said, "and I don't know where they put him." After she said this, she turned away and saw Jesus standing there. But she didn't recognize him. Jesus spoke to her, "Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?". She, thinking that he was the gardener, said, "Sir, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.". Jesus said, "Mary."

With one word, Jesus shows he knows who Mary is, and she recognises him. Jesus appears for a while to tell his followers that he is really alive, that death is not the end – not the end of Jesus and not the end of any of us.
We can’t imagine how it’s going to be, this new life, the life of heaven, but the Easter story gives us the hope that God’s love is strong enough to take away everything that makes our lives painful and to make us alive again.
That is true for the ones we’ve loved and lost – they are safe with God – and it will be true for us one day. And in the meantime, the hope of God’s new life in Jesus can be a light in our darkness.

Lighting of candles
We light this candle to remind us of the presence of Jesus Christ – the one who passed through death and is now living. Jesus promises ‘where I am, you will be also’.
If you would like to come forward and to light your own candle, for your own memories, your own loss,, your own prayer, please do.
Soft music playing.

Closing Prayer
Most Gracious Heavenly Father, we offer all of our needs up to you.
You are holy. In you your people trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.To you they cried and were rescued’.

Compassionate God, we cry to you fro rescue. Free us from the darkness that traps us in our sadness. Help us to see the signs of new life around us and to know that you offer that life to us.
We know that in Jesus Christ you felt our pain and grief and desolation.
But we also know that Jesus was risen from death by you, assuring us of hope and promise. Hold our loved ones in your arms, we pray. And hold us,too. Please be near us this night & always. Amen.

Hymn 243 ‘Now the green blade rises’

If you would like to take a small candle home with you tonight, please do – and light it whenever you need a sign of hope in your life.
Please also feel free to stay for refreshments & to chat if you’d like to.

And may the blessing of God, Father Son Holy Spirit
Be with you and alongside you this Easter and always. Amen.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

"This is my friend..." Lent 5

Friendship with God Jeremiah 31: 31-34; John 12: 20-33
What does it mean to speak of God as a friend? What sense does it make to talk of friendship with God?

I hope we all have friends, so we know something of friendship. A friend is someone you can turn to, someone you know well and who knows you, someone you share your life with.

So does God offer us this kind of relationship, this kind of friendship? I’m not a great one for disembodied bible verses, but I do like 2 Cor 5: 19 ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’. I think that Paul is talking about God extending to us and to all people the offer of friendship. This friendship is seen in Christ and it is a friendship which about sharing our life and even our death so that we can turn to God as someone who knows our human condition all too well.

And if ‘God’s friendship’ doesn’t sound very revolutionary or even sounds a bit hum-drum, I don’t think we’re using the concept of ‘friendship’ in its fullest sense. We can use the term ‘just good friends’ to dismiss something as ‘only friendship’, but surely the concept of being a friend and loving another person are intertwined. I’m fascinated when people celebrating, say, a Golden wedding anniversary are asked the secret of their partnership to hear, time and again words about talking to each other, spending time together, being a friend to the other. The precious gift of God’s love, God’s friendship is given in Christ – God comes to us in Christ to show us what the love of true friendship is about – so what do we see?

The Greeks who come to Philip ask ‘Sir, we would like to see Jesus’. Were you struck by the very strange answer Jesus gives when this request is passed on to him? ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified… I shall draw everyone to myself when I am lifted up from the earth.’

The Greeks have been drawn to Jesus by what they have seen and heard of his teaching and healing ministry – they want to meet the great healer, the great rabbi, Jesus. And Jesus says, in effect ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet’. We might think we have seen Jesus’ love in action in the way he treats people and speaks to the outcast and heals the sick – but the most dramatic display of the extremity of God’s love has yet to be seen.

It is fascinating that it is right now, at this stage of Jesus’ life, that John tells us a voice from heaven speaks to confirm Jesus’ work as glorifying the Father. In the other 3 gospels there is a confirming voice at Jesus’ baptism, at the start of Jesus’ ministry of healing and teaching – but for John this voice comes now as if to signify that this is where Jesus’ real work begins, with his act of willing sacrifice on the cross. For John, Jesus is not the healer/rabbi, he is the Messiah who has come to save the world by laying down his own life in love. Jesus himself calls this an act of friendship when he says ‘greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend’.

Jesus shows us God in human form and the goes to the extreme of death to display the friendship God offers.
This friendship is what Jeremiah calls the new covenant, when
‘I will become their God and they will become my people’. Jeremiah promises a time when God will form an unbreakable bond with people, when God’s love will be so deep within them that it will change their hearts.

So what does it mean for us to be people who are friends of God, people who accept what God has done for them, people who look at Jesus hanging on the cross and say ‘this is how much God loves us’?

Well of course all good friendships are two-way relationships – friends don’t tend to last too long if one does all the giving and the other all the taking in the friendship. If God loves us, we should love God and we are taught that it is nonsense to love God without loving the people he has made, the others he calls friends.

And what might it mean for the church to be a community of friends of God?
Jesus teaches ‘unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it bears no fruit’.
What might need to die in us as God’s friends?
Perhaps the seed of self-righteousness, the seed of arrogance, the seed of self-doubt, the seed of suspicion that there might not actually be enough of God’s love to go round…
If those seed fall to the ground we might bear much fruit.

And then when people say ‘we would see Jesus’ we can say come and see his friends, come and see his body, the church, taste and see that the Lord is good.

So may we die to all that separates us from God’s friendship and be fruitful in God’s service.
In the name of Christ.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Mothering Sunday

With apologies for no post last week (Sunday off & I went to see my parents - hooray!); and to those in the States who might want to see a 'Lent 4' sermon - you could look at the one from 3 years ago?

Who is Mothering Sunday for? Exodus 2.1-10, John 19.25-27

So – how do you feel about Mothering Sunday?
Perhaps you feel that it’s a bit of a hype by those who want to sell cards, chocolates & flowers.
It seems today can be a bit too centred on mothers.
I would hate anyone to think today is not for them if they are not a mother – so let’s agree, first of all, that it’s about mothering, not just mothers. But even that is not without potential difficulty.
I’m very lucky that I have a good relationship with my mum – actually she’s always been a bit of a hero to me – a woman who has raised four very different children and had a career as a teacher, who taught me in Sunday school, and would cheerfully stay up until the early hours baking a cake or sewing something which one of us simply HAD to have for the morning. For me, motherhood means love, care, and unstinting support. So why do I feel so ambivalent about celebrating motherhood in church?

Because I know it just isn’t like this for everyone. I have several friends who have a strained relationship with their mother, who even as adults find it hard to cope with their critical nature, or whose mothers have died. I know they find Mothering Sunday difficult.
And Mothering Sunday can be difficult, too, if it becomes an occasion to say that Motherhood is God’s plan for every woman – or the ultimate aim for any woman. Some of us will have an experience of being a mother which is positive and wonderful, and which teaches us something about love itself: but some of us won’t – and motherhood is certainly not the only way to learn about love.
So as we tread carefully around the pitfalls of today – the possibility of painful memories for those who have lost their mother, or have never felt like they have been ‘mothered’ well; and the danger of making others feel second best if they have not been mothers, or have not found it a very positive experience – you might be left wondering why we bother at all.
But I think there is something about mothering, in its broadest sense, which gives us a glimpse into the heart of God. And since we so often refer to God as Father perhaps today can redress the balance slightly. God, after all, is not male or female – yes, we speak of God as father, but God’s love also contains the features we might more commonly associate with human mothers: caring, tending, nurturing.
Our Old Testament reading shows us exactly the sort of complexity of love which we find in God, that I’m hinting at.

Moses has a mother. She isn’t named in this story, but we can feel her love for Moses and her desperation to keep him alive. She spends 3 months hiding her son from the Egyptian people who have been ordered by their Pharoah ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’. Eventually she realizes she can’t hide her son any longer and so she throws her son into the Nile – but first she places him in a watertight basket. Here is the love of a mother – trying to keep her son alive in the face of terrible odds.
But then we find another mother figure in the story - the daughter of Pharoah. She knows this is a Hebrew boy – she knows what her father has ordered all his people to do – but she decides to adopt this baby as her own. She offers him protection from Pharoah and a new home in the palace. And it is Pharoah’s daughter who gives Moses his name –an Egyptian name– indicating that he has been drawn out of the water.

And between these 2 mothers – the natural birth mother and the adopted mother, there is another who offers Moses the loving protection we expect of a mother - Moses’ sister. She stands watch over the basket to see what will happen to her baby brother. And so it is she who is able to twist events so that Moses gets his birth mother back as his nurse-maid. She is quick-witted and unafraid of speaking out on Moses’ behalf – and she negotiates effectively between the other 2 mothers.

Moses’ story show us mothering that is determined to keep this boy alive, if at all possible; mothering which is prepared to flout authority if necessary; mothering that is quick-witted enough to find a way to handle the situation for the child’s benefit. The story tells us that you don’t have to be a birth mother to someone to show a motherly love. And the writers of the Hebrew scriptures wants us to know that God is at work in this story – that God loves Moses, wants what’s best for him, will fight for him, will stick with him through all the twists in his life-story. God’s love is a motherly love. Motherly love, at its best, shows us something of what God’s love is like.

And the Gospel reading has interesting light to throw on this question of what motherly love looks like, too. In his dying moments on the cross, Jesus sees Mary, his mother, there; and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. ‘The disciple Jesus loved’ – who is usually identified as John, is also there. Jesus says to his mother ‘woman, here is your son’ and to John ‘Here is your mother’. I think I had always assumed that this shows us Jesus’ love for his mother, that he wishes her to be cared for after his death. At that level, this story acts as an important reminder that we should not just seek to receive love from mothers, but to care for them too.
But the gospels also tell us that Jesus had brothers and sisters – so it can’t just be about Jesus wanting to look after Mary – his siblings surely would have done this.
So what if Jesus is saying something wider about the motherly love which he wants to see among his followers – what if Jesus is saying that those who are united at the foot of his cross are, through his love, united as closely as mothers and their sons.

Motherly love gives us an insight into God’s love.
It is not just a biological phenomenon – it is something wider, something chosen, something shared.

So Mothering Sunday is not just about mothers – it is even not just about human love – it is about an aspect of divine love. And Mothering Sunday is for each one of us. It is about a love which is there to care for each of us, a love we see on the cross and find in our bread & wine, a love which reaches out to everyone and makes us all part of the family of God, this Mothering Sunday and always. Amen.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Lent 2 - The way of the cross

Mark 8:31 – 38 : Romans 4:13 – 25

I was never a specially daring child, though I’ve had my share of bumps and scrapes. One thing I remember trying several times, though, is walking along a see-saw. You start at the end on the ground, you inch your way up, up hill, towards the middle where you know that, any minute now you’ll reach the point at which the whole thing tips the other way and you can run down the other side & off, preferably without breaking any bones!

We’re at that point in Mark’s gospel today, the tipping point, the dangerous bit where one end flies up and the other down and then it’s down-hill all the way for Jesus.

Up until this point, Jesus has gone about healing and teaching and constantly people have been asking themselves ‘who is this?’. Now, here at Caesarea Philippi – Peter has finally answered the question “You are the Messiah”.

Jesus immediately tells the disciples to hush – and then goes on to say what we have heard today, so that they will understand just what sort of Messiah he is.
Jesus doesn’t want them to get carried away with thoughts of political power or violent rebellion. He says ‘the Son of Man must suffer and die’. He makes them stop with everything in the balance and listen to what is ahead of them, before they rush down the second half of the see-saw.

And poor Peter, who just moments before got it so right, now gets it so wrong ‘not you, not this?’ - he rebukes Jesus for being so gloomy, at which Jesus says to him “get behind me Satan, you think as men think, not as God thinks.”

Jesus doesn’t say that he might suffer, or that he fears he will suffer, he is emphatic – he MUST suffer and die.

There has already been enough opposition to Jesus for him to see that at this point either he has to give up any attempt to demonstrate the coming of God’s kingdom – give up the healing and teaching and return to the life of a quiet carpenter from Nazareth, or he has to continue past the tipping point of the see-saw and face the consequential crash down that will come as the religious authorities of the day move to have him silenced for good.

Jesus must suffer and die – only by facing up to the worst that could be done to him and carrying on through death to resurrection could the ultimate power of God be demonstrated.

But then Jesus says something even more shocking to his disciples – “Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must renounce self; he must take up his cross and follow me”.

Jesus is warning his followers that faith in him is not a spectator sport, it is something in which they have to get up and get involved. Just as Paul describes the faith of Abraham as all-important, so Jesus demands faith in him.
And Abraham’s faith wasn’t a ‘sit by the fireside and tell old stories’ kind of faith – it was a faith which led him to leave his home in Ur and travel to Haran; a faith that made him leave his new home of Haran & travel into the desert – a faith of such trust in God that the impossible became possible, yet a faith that demanded trust in action from Abraham.
Jesus demands this kind of faith in action from his disciples.

And not just any action – being prepared to take up the cross – being prepared to stand with Jesus Christ and shoulder the burden of suffering and pain. Whilst he is totally dedicated to the work of the kingdom of God, Jesus is clear-sighted about the suffering that will follow for him and the suffering his followers might also suffer. Until the kingdom comes finally and in power, Jesus is reminding his followers that they will not be immune from suffering when they follow him – in fact the very act of discipleship will bring suffering and death to some.

So what does it mean to us to take up the cross and follow Jesus?

I think it means many things:
It means being prepared to lay down our lives, to give ourselves completely to God, to ask first in any decision ‘what is God’s will?’ and not simply to follow our own inclinations.

It means being realistic about the fact that our faith will not make us immune to the suffering of the world around us – that just because all things are possible with God we cannot expect an easy ride. Following Jesus may not be impossible but sometimes it can be, as a friend said recently, “bloomin’ hard”.

Ask the young person who is made fun of by their class-mates or work-mates because they confess their Christian faith;
or ask the very able woman who has to decide whether to opt for personal happiness or service of Christ;
or ask the elderly widow or widower who is hanging onto faith when life is incredibly difficult and everyone around thinks they’re lonely and deluded…

Taking up our cross means actively seeking the way Christ calls us to follow, even if that way is difficult – and living with the consequences of knowing we could just have opted to stay where we were and stay comfortable.

I don’t know what taking up the cross might mean for each one of us here – and yet Jesus clearly tells us to take up the cross and follow.

Yet, if all that seems a gloomy message – remember the last part ‘take up your cross...and follow me’. The road may be difficult but we walk it with Jesus – beyond every tipping point he is there to catch us, for each journey he is the guide and the goal.

So have faith, take up your cross, and follow him.