Friday, 20 February 2015

Lent 1


Mark 1: 9-15, Genesis 9: 8-17

Lent has begun. Whether we have given up something we normally enjoy (like chocolate) or have taken up something (such as more time to pray) or maybe if we’re reading a Lent book or attending a Lent group, there are many ways that we can use the days of Lent to walk more closely with Jesus as we prepare for Easter.

But terrible news has crashed into all the relatively cozy ways we have found of following Jesus, as we heard this week of the murder of 21 Coptic Christians by Islamic State in Libya. Whatever the political rather than religious reasons for those murders, the fact is that they were singled out because of their faith. The footage of the grieving families was truly harrowing to Western ears – the raw grief of people left bereft by this awful slaughter.

The familiar cry goes up to heaven – where is God when the followers of Jesus are suffering?

But Lent is meant to teach us that whatever the deprivation, the suffering, even in death itself, God walks alongside us – as Jesus did, and the love of the Father waits to offer us resurrection life, as he did for Jesus.

Mark’s version of the start of Jesus’ time in the wilderness is a very simple account. The only speech we have is from heaven itself as Jesus is baptized and sees the dove descend “You are my beloved son in you I take delight”.
We are told that Jesus is tempted by Satan and waited on by angels – but unlike other gospels we are not told what is said.

But Mark does give us an extraordinary little detail of what happens to this beloved son of God, who delights the Father so much : “At once the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness…”.

Jesus doesn’t begin his ministry with great shows of power, mass healings, huge sermons (in fact other gospel writers suggests to us he might have been resisting the temptation to do just that).
Jesus begins with God the Father’s blessing – but then the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness for a time of reflection and prayer. Even though the wilderness is a place of danger and trial and difficulty – being blessed by God the Father and accompanied by the Spirit doesn’t save Jesus from the wilderness – the Spirit actually takes him there.

Lent helps us to walk with Jesus and know that this is not an easy, blessed, sacred road – but it is a hard, but still blessed and sacred road. Even in the scorching heat and freezing cold and physical pain of the wilderness, Jesus is not abandoned. He is driven there by the Spirit and he is attended by angels. The wilderness and temptation and trial is real – but the presence and blessing and care of God is also real.
This really shouldn’t surprise us: the Hebrew scriptures are full of God’s promises to accompany and care for God’s people.

We heard in the reading from Genesis, about God’s covenant with the people emerging for the ark. Noah has, on God’s instructions, built the ark, filled it with animals, and sailed through the devastating flood.
But now the action is all over, and today’s passage reports God talking to Noah about the covenant God is making with all creation, sealed with the sign of the rainbow.

I was struck again by the fact that this covenant relationship requires nothing from Noah or any other of God’s creatures: it is a deal struck through the unconditional love and care of God.

God uses the word ‘covenant’ seven times in that passage.

Seven times! - it might just be a coincidence that that’s once for each day of creation – a covenant with every living thing God has made. It might also be that the seven –fold covenant is meant to signify how perfect this covenant is – seven was felt to be a ’complete’ number.

This covenant, like the act of creation itself, is God's initiative - after all, Noah & his family had only obeyed God's instructions - God did all the creative parts!

It is God who closes the door of the ark once everyone is safe inside, God who remembers Noah and the animals and send the wind to dry up the waters of the flood, God who tells Noah to leave the ark, and God who then blesses Noah and his descendants.

Then God sends us a rainbow - a sign that God is in charge and that God’s love will never fail us or leave us.

Lent reminds us of all the promises of God to be with us – but in the grittiness of Jesus’ deprivation and suffering, and ultimately in Jesus death and resurrection, we are not encouraged to rely on God’s presence to keep things easy or fluffy or simple. Suffering is sometimes unavoidable, death is an awful reality, life is never all rainbows. But Jesus walks with us, in all of life’s stress and strife.

So it is entirely proper that we receive communion today – food for our pilgrimage and a memorial of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
When bread – or bones – are broken: God is with us.
Where blood is poured out as easily as wine, staining our world: God is with us.
Where God’s people gather to trust and share and pray: God is with us.
There is only one thing we must do: accept the bread and wine given to us, as a sacrament of all the unconditional love God gives.
Eat and drink – and be very thankful.  Amen.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Transfiguration

Readings: Mark 9: 2-9 and 2 Corinthians 8:8-12

Today many churches, in their worship, will be thinking about Church Action on Poverty Sunday. We are one of them.
So let’s start by thinking about poverty.
What does it mean to you to think of someone as impoverished?
It can’t just be about your income being below a set level – because whether that is enough depends on where you are in the world, what your expectations are, what everyone around you has.
Yet we know poverty when we see it
– poverty is not being able to make choices
– your children can’t go to school because you can’t afford the books or the uniform or the school meals
- you have to leave education to start earning to support your family
- you have to use a food bank and be grateful for what you’re given
- you have to struggle constantly to get to the end of the week without despair
But what do I know about poverty – with my regular income, my comfortable house, my nicely-filled bank account? So here is some of Cate’s story: Cate is my age (51) – she lives in Liverpool, and can’t work because she is living with HIV. Cate writes (in this little book on “Poverty” – the inclusive church resource, DLT):
“Winter is always hard – there is never enough money on the meter to stay warm, and often I will make a hot water bottle and go back to bed rather than be up and have the heating on…I was lucky, when I was young I learnt from my mother how to make tasty, nutritious and filling meals and it saved my children from going hungry, although that wasn’t always true for me…My reality is that every choice I make is a compromise to another aspect of my budget – a tin of paint for the walls means less food in the fridge. I can only have a new pair of shoes or a haircut if I miss a utility payment…I’m often only three loaves of bread away from needing to go to the food bank. I’ve never used it because it’s run from our church and the indignity of being seen walking through the door would crucify me”.

Many of our churches are becoming involved in food banks – I know you have the “Lord’s Larder” here in Yeovil. It warms my heart that people of faith see that they have a responsibility to help and support poor people in our communities. But if our involvement begins and ends there, I think we are selling our Christian faith short.

Yes, as Christians we would hope to be kind to those who need our help – but we are also required to want to bring justice to our society. So we support foodbanks – whilst hating the fact that they have to exist in twenty-first century Britain. We are here as Christians not just to be nice but to uphold the values of the kingdom – which include truth and justice. So we should be asking what is wrong in our society, where child poverty is once again on the increase?
The section of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which we heard, contains a plea from Paul for the church to support a collection to help the poor in Jerusalem. But Paul doesn’t only say ‘give because you are kind people who want to help’ – he tells the Corinthians to stand shoulder to shoulder with their sisters and brothers in Christ – because of what they believe about Christ himself.

Christ became poor. Perhaps we’ve heard this idea so often we’ve lost a sense of how shocking it is. God became human in Jesus Christ – and not to live in a  palace which might at least begin to emulate something of the richness and power of heaven – but to live homeless, jobless, wandering, supported by the kindness of others. And to die as a criminal.
And from this position of poverty Jesus says ‘blessed are the poor’ – not because they are cared for by the likes of you and me, but because they are loved and precious in God’s sight – blessed and adored children of God. Blessed are the poor because there is nothing to get between them and God’s love – they cannot begin to think they can cope in life on their own – in the very hopelessness and desperation that the state of their world might bring they are yet more tightly held in God’s arms.

‘Christ became poor’, says Paul – God came in Christ to live in poverty, to dignify even the humblest human life with divine presence. Then Paul goes on: Christ is the one “who for your sake became poor so that by his poverty you may become rich”. Who Jesus really is makes all the difference to the way we live our lives. Jesus comes to bring the kingdom of God to humanity – not only in his teaching and healing but through his death: through his self-sacrifice, which demonstrates the depth of self-giving and which enables God the Father to bring him through death to eternal life. Through Christ’s poverty and death we are made part of the kingdom of God – those who know what love truly is and who live to proclaim it.

I started this sermon by saying that we are sharing with those churches who are marking Church Action on Poverty Sunday. Other churches in their worship will be thinking about the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. And we are one of them too ! Because if our worship isn’t about being consciously in God’s presence to bring together the state of the world, the witness of Jesus Christ and the Word of God – what is it about?

When we hear the story of the transfiguration we are once again forced to consider just who this Jesus is, who walked the earth as a humble carpenter’s son. Clearly Jesus is so much more than an itinerant teacher, as Paul too declares. But I think the transfiguration story says something else about our Christian response to poverty.

This is an odd story, to be sure – so much so that some people have suggested that it is actually a resurrection appearance that somehow got reported to Mark in the wrong place. It certainly makes us think about the earthly Jesus and the risen Christ. And, like the later resurrection stories, it helps us realise that when Jesus talks about “life in all its fullness” it is not earthly riches that he has in mind, but resurrection life.

When we are helping those who are poor we need to be standing shoulder to shoulder with them, crying out for justice, and determined that they will know real life, transfigured life, the full life of the kingdom.

Poverty means death – the death of choice, the death of dignity, ultimately of course it can bring life to a premature end. When as Christians we see people facing death – whether in this town or across the world – what should our response be?
Do we shrug our shoulders because we can do very little – just wait to see the poor dead and buried?
Do we try to ameliorate their suffering a little – so long as they’re properly grateful, of course.
Or do we give everything we are and everything we have to want to bring resurrection where there is death – to bring the kingdom values of justice, love and peace.

If you wish to give money to the work of Church Action on Poverty, I do have some envelopes here: money can make a difference. But I also ask you to give your time, to listen to the stories of those who are poor; to give your voice to protest against injustice and poverty; and to give dignity to those who are named by Jesus as the blessed children of God.
If you can give these things, we may yet see the life of poor people transfigured, as God wills them to be.
In the name of Jesus Christ,
Amen.