Friday, 28 March 2014

The man born blind - Lent 4

This Sunday I am preaching at the closing service for Penhill Church in Swindon. I am using the lectionary readings - Psalm 23 and John 9: 1-17

It is not easy, is it – being gathered here today. Endings are hard – full of questions like  ‘what if..?’, ‘what next..?’ ‘where is God in this..”’.

In choosing the Bible readings to help us to shape our worship today, I turned deliberately to the lectionary. Sundays come and go but the Revised Common Lectionary marches on – this year Matthew’s gospel is the focus, next year it will be Mark, then Luke, then we go back round. And in Lent & around Easter, John’s gospel gets a look in.
Sundays come and go.. but God’s word endures. When we use the common lectionary we are reminded that we are just a small part of the much bigger story of God’s church.
Churches come and go – and what is God’s word to us, today?
I think the story of the man born blind can help us, here and now, to ask where God is in this act of closing Penhill Church, and where God will be in the days to come.

The story hinges around those who miss the point.

The disciples are in danger of missing the point. When they first see this blind man, they want to ask Jesus whose fault this is. At the time many believed that for a person to be blind was a sign of God’s judgement for that person’s sin :God blessed good people and punished, with illness, bad people. But this man was born blind – his sight was taken before he could sin – so is it his parents sin that is being punished. They ask Jesus – whose fault is this? – this awful thing cannot just have happened for no reason – so who is the one to blame, who is being punished by this?
Jesus helps them to see – ‘neither this man or his parents sinned’ – but by healing the man he helps them to see God truly at work. The point is that God’s will is for healing, not punishment.
If we want to ask why this church is closing we may be missing the point – it is not so simple as we might wish. God’s love for us does not guarantee that only good things will happen to us, and when difficult things happen it is not a sign that God is punishing us.
God’s grace has been present in this church and is present now as we gather to remember and celebrate and move on.

The Pharisees, too, miss the point. They hear about the healing of this blind man, and they are shocked and horrified – Jesus has healed a man on the Sabbath! They start an investigation – there is a charge to be answered here: healing, working on the day God has set aside for us to rest.
This proves that Jesus cannot be the man of God some say he is – he is flagrantly breaching God’s own rules.
It is left to the man who has been healed to help them to see the truth; “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed. Now I see.. He is a prophet.”. Only a man of God could heal like this – whatever the day of the week. This is God’s healing power at work – and you would have to be blind not to see that.

Jesus’ power helps the man see – but he also helps his disciples to see the truth of God’s will, and helps the Pharisees to see that he is a man of God. In order to see the truth, though, they will all need to be willing to accept what they are shown.

So what do we need to willing to see this day? Are we in danger of being blinded by sadness or regret? Can Jesus help us to see God at work in this moment and place?

As we look at God’s word, let’s look for God’s truth for us – what does Jesus want to show us?

For the blind man, Jesus’ help comes in unexpected ways.
It starts with spit. It starts with what might be seen as a rejection, almost a sign of contempt. I wonder what the blind man thought when he heard Jesus spit on the ground. Did he think it was another judgement of him. This disciples thought it was sin that made him cursed with blindness – no doubt he had met many people in his life who thought the same. Was Jesus about to spit and then curse him too? But then Jesus bends to the ground and uses the spit to change the dust of the ground to a mud which he spreads on the man’s eyes. I wonder how it felt, that mud, as Jesus spread it on the man’s face? Then Jesus speaks - sending him to wash so that the healing can be complete. So he goes, and washes and for the first time in his life he can see.

The blind man risks rejection, he seeks to change his world and he is prepared to follow Jesus command to go and wash.

Risking rejection, changing the world around, doing as Jesus says – these are all thing that I know have been part of the life of Penhill. It would be easy today to feel that risk was not worth it, that the work of change is over, that Jesus is no longer speaking here.
But if we felt that we would be missing the point – we would be blind to God’s power at work. We know that God has been present in this place – and we know that God’s power and presence remains with us, wherever we are in the future.

Jesus helps us to see – God is with us.

We heard earlier the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my Shepherd” – wonderful words of God’s comfort, care, and guiding.
But for me the most precious words of all are the words “even though”, “yea, though” in the older translation. “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”. The darkest shadow, the deepest grief, the greatest blindness – are all places where we can see and know God with us.

So for all those times you have seen God’s love at work here – give thanks.
In times of darkness or blindness to God’s will – ask that Jesus will help you to see.
And whatever the future holds, know that even though the way may be dark or unclear, God will always protect and guide and never abandon.

In the name of Jesus and his healing love and power.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The woman at the well - Lent 3

John 4: 5-42

Next week I’m going to be “walking in her shoes” – raising money and awareness to help women and girls who have to walk many miles a day to fetch water for their families. The challenge for me is to walk 10,000 steps a day, sponsored, to raise money for Care International.
It is still the reality for many in the developing world that the search for water dominates life. For example, Eliza, in South Sudan, is just seven years old, but must travel through dangerous scrubland where snakes pose a real danger. Greater still is the risk to her health from the water itself. It is stagnant and filthy and sickness is common. Eliza has no time for school. Like so many girls she bears the responsibility for domestic chores, carrying a heavy load to quench her family’s thirst.
Care International provides equipment such as solar-powered wells for villages, so that women and girls do not have to walk so far for water.
Without help, water dominates the thoughts and activities of many women in our world.

This is nothing new – we heard from John’s gospel the story of a woman fetching water. But Jesus uses her need for, and pre-occupation with, water to start her thinking about her real needs.

Jesus meets the 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 are looking for, what you need, and what you have found in Jesus is a recurring theme.
John uses a recurring pattern of encounters with Jesus which lead either to belief in him, a realization that Jesus can supply your need, or to conflict, as people turn away in search of other things.

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: the one who has come to supply our needs.
So how do these signs 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 is 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 in the temple (a story that John puts near the start of Jesus’ ministry, not near the end as other gospels do).
Jesus next has the conversation with Nicodemus, who comes to him by night seeking answers, 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. Again Jesus talks of himself as the one who supplies real need.

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 and flow of signs of Jesus' identity leading to people 'believing in him' as the answer to their need, contrasted 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 –
Either 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?

What are you looking for, what do you need in life? Water, bread, care, …? Jesus tells us that he can answer all these needs: he is the one who will give us living water, true bread, who will be our good shepherd. Because Jesus is the one who brings us not just the stuff we need to keep us going in life, but Jesus offers eternal life – life in all its fullness.

So whatever your needs for the day, give thanks that you can celebrate God’s living water offered to you in Jesus – and be ready to share the good news of that life with all you meet.
In Jesus’ name.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The transfiguration.

 Exodus 24: 12-18, Matthew 17: 1-9

The Bible has so many styles of writing in it, doesn’t it? Laws, poetry, song, different stories, letters, history.
Some of the passages help us to find strength in our daily lives, some challenge us, some show us God’s love in new ways.
And some are just puzzling. Like today’s readings.

Moses goes up the mountain, called there by God, to receive God’s laws and commandments. The mountain is covered with cloud and ‘the glory of the Lord’ – which looks like a devouring fire.
This is pretty terrifying stuff: and always makes me think back to the Sunday afternoons of my childhood and the Biblical epics of Cecil B DeMille, with the thundering voice of God and plenty of cloud and fire and trembling.
Be in no doubt, when you read the book of Exodus – God is very scary indeed: only Moses gets to see God face-to-face  and even Moses comes back changed by the encounter – the people of Israel are terrified when Moses comes down from the mountain with his face still glowing from his encounter with God.

This story is strange, other-worldly, terrifying, mysterious.
But we are also left in no doubt that Moses has met with God – received God’s teaching, seen something of God’s great power. This is what happens when God’s messenger meets with God.

The disciples – Peter, James & John, who went up the mountain with Jesus - had not, of course, seen the film version of the “Ten Commandments”. But they knew their scripture. So when Jesus’ face begins to glow, they know that he is meeting with God on that mountain top. This is what happens when God’s messenger meets with God.

But then the differences begin:
Not only Jesus face, but his whole being, even his clothes, begin to shine with God’s glory.
Moses and Elijah meet there with Jesus and talk with him – this is not just one man meeting with God, but some kind of coming together of the law and the prophets.
Then God speaks, but not to say to Jesus ‘listen to me’ or ‘receive my law’ as happened to Moses on Mount Sinai. God speaks to the disciples and says
"This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!".

Jesus meets with God the Father on the mountain top, but this is so much more than a prophet receiving God’s teaching. God the Father points to Jesus the Son and tells the disciples that Jesus will give them the teaching – directly – just as Jesus shines with God’s glory directly. The disciples see, on that mountain top, that Jesus is not just the messenger or prophet of God, but is the very embodiment of God’s glory and God’s presence.

No wonder the disciples are terrified. But Jesus touches them and tells them not to be afraid, and leads them back down the mountain with the order "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.".

I’m sure the disciples needed some time to reflect on what they had seen – time for the reality of Jesus, their friend, as God with them to truly sink in and begin to make sense.

And the disciples were shown this before Jesus’ suffering and death, so that they could be in no doubt that Jesus, God with us, gives up that glory willingly and give himself up for love of the world.
That’s why we have this reading here in our lectionary, on the Sunday before Lent begins.
It is important that we grasp who Jesus truly is – and realize that his identity as the Son of God doesn’t exempt him from pain but leads him to embrace it, out of love.

For Moses and for Jesus an encounter with the presence of God leads to an unmistakable, unmissable glow, reflecting and demonstrating something of the glory and power of God.

So what about us? As we follow Jesus, can we become transfigured, changed as Jesus was?

Have we encountered the light and love and glory of God in our lives – in our worship, in our times of greatest need, in our moments of pure joy?
Dare we be challenged to try to show this glory of God in our lives? How can we better reflect Christ’s light in the world?

Just think for a moment of someone you have met that you would describe as a saint – someone who showed you the love of God, who shone with God’s love reflected in their face and their life. As you think of that person, can you feel, just for a moment, your own smile lighting up?

We know that there are people out there (or maybe they’re in here!) who reflect God’s love and God’s light – and we know that that light shines on the people around them. We know, we’ve seen it for ourselves.

But when you talk to those luminous people, I find that time and again they shrug off any suggestion that they are special, and point you to what God has done in their lives. It is not their own light which makes them shine, it is their openness to recognise and reflect the light of God.

As we receive this communion today, may it so fill us with a sense of Christ’s presence that we cannot help but have the light and glory and love of God shining in our lives.
And let’s go from here determined to let the light shine in us and from us , so that the whole world might see and believe in God’s love.
In the name of Jesus