Saturday, 25 February 2012

Lent 1 Baptism

We have a baptism at one of the churches on Sunday - so this very short sermon is an attempt to reach a lot of people who maybe haven't been in church for a while. I'm trying to preach them Good News!

Mark 1: 9-15

You might wonder what the baptism of Jesus has in common with Lily’s baptism today.
First of all, the differences might strike you:
• Jesus’ baptism was nearly 2000 years ago.
• He was a grown adult and chose to be baptised himself, he wasn’t taken by his parents.
• The baptism happens outside, in a river, not in a church at all.

But the amazing thing that happens at Jesus’ baptism is that people hear the voice of God say to Jesus "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This is the point at which Jesus starts living the life that God has planned – telling people what we call ‘the Good News’ – telling people that God loves them, that God’s love and care is always with them, and that they can live lives where they have a relationship with God, a relationship so close that they can call God ‘Father’.

Jesus spent the rest of his life telling people that, and his life ended with him dying on a cross to show them that God’s love would do anything for them. And finally on Easter Sunday, his followers learned that God’s love was so powerful that Jesus was alive again and that the risen Jesus would never leave them.

The followers of Jesus believed what Jesus said about God’s love. And they began baptizing people to show that God’s love could give them a whole new life. Quite soon they realized that God’s love was for everyone from the moment they were born, and so they started baptising babies.

So here we are today baptising Lily.
Because we want to thank God for her life
And we want to thank God for loving her
And we want to celebrate the fact that God’s amazing love will be with her all through her life.
God wants Lily’s life to be something amazing – a life of love and a life lived knowing that God loves her. A life just like the life that Jesus always talked about – a life of following and listening to Jesus and learning more and more about God’s love.

And as we celebrate with Lily, God wants us all to know that God’s love is there for each one of us too.
In Jesus’ name.
Amen.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Transfiguration

Last week I had 3 funerals and everything else got a bit 'squished' as a result: just realised that I never got round to posting this - oops!

Mark 9: 2-9

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. This is where Peter James & John’s story of the transfiguration becomes good news for us.

In this strange story we see a glimpse of Jesus’ real identity. Jesus is not just another man, even a good teacher, or a prophet among prophets. Jesus is God incarnate – Jesus is God’s initiative, God action of self-giving.

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.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

The God who heals

Readings:
2 Kings 5: 1-14
Mark 1: 40-45


Imagine the story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian was a play – which part would you most like to be cast in?

Naaman is on stage a lot of course – it’s his story in many ways so he has top billing. He is a very successful army commander but suffers from leprosy and needs healing. But although Naaman is the focus of the story I think he’s too prone to making mistakes to really be the hero.

Instead, you might like to look at the important parts played in the story by the 3 servants:

Naaman's wife's servant is the one who tells Naaman to go to Elisha for healing in the first place - she has faith in her God.

I think she’s quite a heroine in the story, actually. If she was resentful towards her owner (and remember she’s been captured in battle, so didn’t exactly choose to be serving Naaman’s wife) the story might never have got started. But when she sees Naaman’s suffering she has faith that God, through Elisha, can and will heal him.

Naaman's own servant is the one who persuades him to bathe in the miserable little river Jordan - he seems to a pragmatist, when he says '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. But without him, Naaman would simply have gone home unhealed. His attitude to Elisha’s offer of healing seems to be ‘it can’t hurt, so you might as well try’.

Elisha's servant appears twice – firstly he’s the one that delivers Elisha’s instructions to Naaman, since Elisha himself won’t even leave the house to talk to Naaman. Then, after Naaman has given in, bathed in the Jordan, and been healed, Naaman tries to pay Elisha for his services & the prophet refuses payment. Elisha’s servant appears again, going running after Naaman to claim some of the money. And he is punished with the skin disease. He thinks God’s power is something he can cash in on.

I think those three different servants help us to reflect on the 3 different reactions to God’s power to heal.

How do we feel about God’s healing?
Do we say ‘I suppose we could try it? – it can’t make things any worse – are we pragmatic like Naaman’s servant?

Do we see God’s healing power as something to cash in on – something we can offer people who come to our church, perhaps – an added extra for church membership?

Or like Naaman’s wife’s servant, the young girl whose name we do not know, do we accept God’s ability to heal and trust that if it is God’s will, healing can follow?

We may feel there’s an echo of this same trust in the words of the leper who comes to Jesus. “If you choose you can make me clean”.
And Jesus’ response is just as simple ‘I do choose. Be made clean’.
Jesus shows us God’s healing at work in the life of a man who desperately needs it.

He needs it because being a leper is a life sentence which leads to him being considered unclean and an outcast.
He needs it to be able to work.
He needs it to be able to even live in the same house as his family.

Jesus gives him the greatest gift, the gift of healing.
But did you notice that Jesus doesn’t waste time asking what this man’s attitude is to the healing Jesus offers? He may want his livelihood back and be interested in money, like Elisha’s servant; he may just be desperate and willing to give it a go, like Naaman’s servant; or he may have absolute faith, like the servant girl who serves Naaman’s wife.

Whatever his reasons or his thinking, he asks Jesus for help. And Jesus heals him.

When as Christians we start thinking about healing we may get ourselves in all sorts of knots. How does healing work? Why isn’t everyone healed? When will God heal us and when will he offer us the new life that comes through death?
We can’t answer these questions, and yet maybe the stories of both Naaman the Syrian and of the leper healed by Jesus teach us that if we can just find faith enough to ask for help, God will reach out and touch us, and make us whole.

Whatever our needs this day, may the risen Jesus grant us healing in his name, so that we may celebrate at his table in this bread and wine, just as one day we will celebrate the new life of heaven.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Jesus heals in the power of God

Whether this sermon gets preached depends on the weather - more snow here than we're used to - I feel that church members may prefer to stay at home!

(Isaiah 40: 21-31, Mark 1 : 29-39)

Brrr! Those who know me well know I am no lover of Winter: I was really rather relieved to see the back of January and as far as I’m concerned the best thing about February is that it’s shorter, if only by 2 days this year. I am obviously not alone in finding this time of year difficult, though, at least three different dates in January were declared to be the ‘most depressing day of the year’ – thanks to a combination of short days, cold weather, and the after-effects of Christmas.

So I’m glad that we’ve heard Isaiah’s vision of a wider perspective, to lift our eyes and spirits to something higher.

I love the Isaiah reading for its grandeur of vision about the greatness of God.
“It is God who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing”.

When our minds are filled with the many worries of life, it is good sometimes to remember that we are really very small in the great scheme of things – and that God is over all and above all things that concern us.

But Isaiah also gives us a sense that this God, incredibly great and powerful though God is, cares for us and will use his greatness to lift us up when we most need it. So we have those wonderful words:
‘those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
These are words to encourage and amaze us. God is great and rules over all, but God is concerned for us – none of our burdens are insignificant to God, and God promises us strength when we most need it.

When in Mark's gospel Jesus comes to declare God’s coming kingdom, we find him assailed by the many concerns of the people around him, but determined to show that God’s care and God’s power to heal extends to everyone.

Mark tells us of a day in the life of Jesus – and it’s a Sabbath day, too! Having healed a man in the synagogue described as possessed by a devil, Jesus seeks rest in the house of Peter and Andrew. But immediately he arrives he is told that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick – and so Jesus goes and heals her, so completely that she is able to wait on them at table.

Then there seems to be a respite, until the sun sets, the sabbath is over, and then more and more people are brought to Jesus for healing. Finally Jesus goes off to pray alone, but then early the next morning Peter & the other disciples hunt him down, to tell him that more people are looking for him.

Maybe this sense of being surrounded by demands is familiar to us. Yet in all the demands, Jesus is clear 'this is what I came out to do - to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and to cast out demons'.

The healings Jesus carries out by ‘casting out demons’ are the hardest for our modern minds to cope with. We might understand these stories as being about mental illness, and so see them as healing stories.

But it is interesting that Mark tells that Jesus does many of these sorts of healing in his ministry, and that Jesus himself points to the importance of this.
Now, I am not about to suggest that our world is full of demons which we do not recognise. But I think our world is full of ‘possession’.
On Friday last week I had cause to travel to King’s Cross on the train – I saw people possessed by selfishness, rushing past someone struggling with a push-chair; I heard a conversation between two people possessed by envy, discussing bankers’ bonuses; and as I passed through Tottenham I thought about the greed which had possessed those caught up in the looting last summer.

As Jesus begins his ministry, he starts by clearing the decks – removing those things which possess people, so that they can receive the good news of God’s kingdom and the gift of God’s love.
What is most impressive to those of us who feel overwhelmed is that Jesus is happy to turn back to the crowds, again and again. Jesus’ work of healing is not the only reason he has come to live among us, and yet he knows that if we are to listen to the message he brings of God’s kingdom of love and if we are to begin a new relationship with God through him then we must first be healed of what ails us and made free from all that possesses us.

Jesus has come to bring life in all its fullness. To those who wonder if life has any meaning or purpose; to those who feel completely overwhelmed by worry or sickness or just too many demands in life; to those who long to be lifted up in the strength of God.

Jesus brings us new life – his life – in this bread and this wine. And he invites us to share his life and know its power. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Readings for this week:
Isaiah 40: 21-31
Mark 1 : 29-39

I love the Isaiah readings for its grandeur of vision about the greatness of God - but then the sense it gives that this great God cares for us and will use his greatness to lift us up when we most need it. Then Mark's gospel shows Jesus doing just that - no grandeur now, but the healing and caring is held in one human being.
I used the gospel reading during the week to help a meeting to reflect on its work - it seemed people could sympathise with Jesus' very Busy Day - and its meant to be Sabbath, too! Yet in all the demands, Jesus is clear 'this is what I came out to do - to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and to cast out demons' - which I take to mean clearing the ground, freeing people of what 'possesses' them, so that the can receive the good news of God's love.

Priorities, perspective... all these things are washing about in my head. And then I spotted on Facebook someone reading an article about 'the five regrets of the dying'. The article is here

The five top regrets are

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I didn't work so hard.

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I am still processing how (if at all) these things connect to the good news of the kingdom & the lives of our churches and the people in them...
Looks like I need to do some hard thinking tomorrow..