Saturday, 12 December 2020

Advent 3 - pointing to Jesus

John 1: 6-8, 19-28

There is a character from the Christmas story who very rarely makes it onto the Christmas cards, although he is the ‘star’ of our Gospel reading today – John the Baptist.

So I have provided you all with an image of him to take away today. This is a statue from the Charles bridge in Prague, and in this depiction John is doing what he does best.. wearing animal skins and carrying a scallop shell as a sign of baptism, and he is pointing.


 

You’ll find many images of John the Baptist pointing 

-       John and Jesus as infant cousins, with John pointing to Jesus;

-       John in the desert, pointing to a distant figure pf Jesus coming towards the river for baptism; 

-       John baptising Jesus and pointing to him as the Spirit descends in the form of a dove

-       Even John standing at the cross, pointing to Jesus as he is crucified.


John – always pointing – and always pointing to Jesus.

 

The reading we heard makes it absolutely clear ‘he himself was not the light, he came to testify to the light’. John states ‘I am the voice crying… make straight the way for the Lord’ and he encourages the crowd to look for ‘the one who comes after me’.

John the Baptist is in this story of the coming of Christ to make sure we do not miss Jesus – to point out that Jesus is here, Jesus is God made flesh, Jesus is among us.

 

I think John would be delighted that he is not on the Christmas cards – he would want us to be looking at the real centre of Christmas – Jesus. 

 

And if John wanted us to take home one message today it would be this – look for God with us – and then point others to Jesus.

 

You don’t need me to tell you what a wearying and weird year 2020 has been. Our world still has not quite mastered the Covid-19 virus – although we do seem to be making progress. In 9 US states one in a thousand people have died from Covid. Many people will be facing a Christmas table that has people missing from it, either because we are staying apart to try to protect each other or because someone has died. And I know that for some people Christmas is always a difficult time of loss or pain or stress.

 

So what does it mean to point to Jesus at Christmastime?

 

It means pointing to light in the darkness, hope in the depths of despair, the coming of God into our world – not just once for some but forever and for all.

 

I came across a really lovely video on Friday, after it was featured in the BBC News. 

You can see it on Youtube here


The children and staff of the primary school in Grasmere in the Lake District have produced a different kind of nativity play this year. 

Unable to put on the traditional play in school, because of Covid restrictions, they have instead put together a video which shows Mary & Joseph coming to Grasmere to look for somewhere to have their baby. Previously the Angel Gabriel has told Mary about the baby on her phone; a friendly farmer offers a barn – with real cattle & sheep; the host of angels on the hills above Grasmere are wearing wellies under their white raiment; the magi are seen using their telescope & travelling by camper van.. it is a complete delight. Grasmere primary school have really got the message – God come in Christ to them, to their village, to people like them.. like us.

 

Put at its simplest, pointing to Jesus is telling all those who are struggling this Christmas that hope comes to them, wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.

 

There is a way in which we can get this pointing to Jesus wrong.  Have you met the sort of Christian who spends Advent and Christmas muttering grumpily about all the ways in which people are missing the point of Christmas?

“All this jollity, materialism, over-eating – what has that got to do with the birth of Jesus?” they might ask – they might as well add ‘bah, humbug!’.

But pointing to Jesus helps us to see and then to say that the ways we mark Christmas are, at their best, our response to the great good news of God with us.

 

Jollity – is the beginning of joy

Materialism – has its origins in gift giving

Over-eating is the result of too much celebration and feasting.

 

Pointing to Jesus can help us talk about the joy, the gift, and the celebration of the God coming to be with us in our need, to bring life in all its fulness.

 

I’m glad, despite the restrictions, that we have found a way to celebrate communion safely today. This meal – the Lord’s supper – is also a way of pointing to Jesus.

Here in bread and wine we are reminded of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.

We are pointed to the way in which Jesus fed people and filled them with joy.

And we are pointed to the ways he comes to us and feeds us still… and to the promise of the heavenly banquet for all people.

 

May this communion meal feed and strengthen us today, to enable us, like John the Baptist, to point to Jesus, the life and light and joy of the world.

Amen.

Saturday, 28 November 2020

Advent Sunday

 Isaiah 64: 1-7   Mark 13: 24-37

Today is Advent Sunday – a time of hope and expectation and joyfully looking forward to Christmas.

But have you been keeping up with the news? Covid continues to claim lives – in the UK, across the world.. and our politicians are trying to work out how best to respond. We long to get life back to normal, to see businesses re-opening, and people meeting and hugging, to be back together physically in our churches. We long for someone to sort this out properly. And who knows what other burdens we are each carrying. Maybe we even pray for God to come and sort it out for us.

Our world is really not all that different from the world that Isaiah was writing for in the passage we heard. The book of the Bible we call Isaiah was written by about three different prophets in three different times – towards the end, the part we heard is the third Isaiah – and he is speaking to God’s people at the time when they have returned to Jerusalem after being taken captive and exiled in Babylon for over 50 years.

Now the people are back – but after 50 years you can imagine the city is in a terrible state, people are at each other’s throats, they don’t know what to do, their hopes have been dashed, they are wondering whether God really cares about them.

Does that sound a bit familiar?

So what is the word of hope from Isaiah? It is the word ‘Yet’.
We all fade like a leaf…
There is no one who calls on your name..
you have hidden your face from us…
YET
O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter; 
we are all the work of your hand…
Now consider, we are all your people.

I might be being fanciful here but I think Isaiah asks important questions and then answers them.
We all fade like leaf.. yet we are the work of your hand
There is no-one who calls on your name.. yet you are our Father
You have hidden your face from us.. yet we are the clay and you are our potter.

When we feel fragile, we need to remember God holds us in his hand
When we feel that no-one hears our cries, we need to remember God our Father is listening
When we feel that we don’t know God’s plan, we need to remember that he is shaping and forming us and our word from the beginning of time to this moment.
Life is complex and difficult and stressful YET we remember we are all God’s people.
Isaiah encourages the people of his time and he encourages us to look back and remember and find hope in the God who is always with is as creator, Father & sustainer.

In our gospel reading we heard Jesus addressing the disciples in rather gloomy imagery, too. Is there good news for us in this?

Jesus is talking at a time when Israel has been invaded by the Roman army – and is still occupied. There are taxes to be paid to Caesar, warnings of death by crucifixion for those who resist Roman rule, wranglings for power between different political and religious groups. Jesus is not speaking in easy times.. and he warns his listeners that there will come days of suffering and darkness before God finally sets all things right.
Jesus, too offers hope – but not from looking back and remembering, this time, but by looking forward with expectation.

Jesus doesn’t offer a word, he offers an image. From the fig tree learn its lesson… when you see it putting forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.
I’d like to show you the fig tree I’m lucky to have in my garden.





It may not look much now, almost all the leaves have gone ready for Winter. But if you look closer (the second photo)…you see the bud is already there. I think Jesus knew very well that even at the hardest time of year the promise of next year’s growth is there. From the fig tree learn its lesson – life may be hard now, but soon – in a few months there will be a time of growth again. The buds of that growth exist already.

Jesus invites his listeners and us to see in the sign around us the fact that God is already at work – and to look forward to a time when new things will happen. “Keep awake”, says Jesus – do not despair, but look for what God is going to do.

Today we will celebrate communion together.

When we take the bread and wine we look back, and remember that in Jesus God came to us, died for us, and rose again to be with us always.

When we take the bread and wine we look forward, we see in this meal a foretaste of the banquet of God’s kingdom – when all will be fed, all ills righted, and love will conquer all.

When we take the bread and wine we keep awake, to see what God is ready to do in Advent, in us, through the coming of his mercy and grace.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.


Saturday, 24 October 2020

Love God, others, self: Matthew 22: 34-46

 Matthew 22: 34-46

A lawyer comes to test Jesus – “Which commandment is the greatest?”.

 

The books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy contain pages and pages, chapters and chapters of commandments – not just the ones we call the ‘ten commandments’, but many more besides, dealing with how to live, how to walk in God’s way, how to serve justice, what to eat, property law, rules of warfare, marriage, money..

 

How do you choose just one?

Jesus’ answer? He brings together the teaching of  many of those pages and pages of commandments into this:

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

 

 

You shall love.. says Jesus. 

All of the commandments are meant to bring us to a point where we can be people who love. Love God with all you have, and love your neighbour as yourself.

 

But it is hard sometimes, to love. It is hard to love when we feel up against it in life, perhaps it’s especially hard to love in a time of pandemic.. there is so much else to be thinking about, and so much to worry about, and our nerves feel frayed and our hearts uncertain. 

How can we love God with all our heart, soul & mind – when we are struggling just to hold on in life?

How can we love our neighbour when we’re discouraged from mixing and we’re hidden behind masks, and trying to keep safe?

Let’s start at the end of what Jesus says ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – love others as you love yourself – love others as if they were your very self – but first of all you need to love yourself.

We had a training half-day for ministers this week about how to lead in a time of change. It was full of good advice about helping churches deal with change: recognising people’s feelings (when we might be fearful of change..); helping people to talk and listen to each other (even when we disagree); and learning to communicate so that everyone can be aware of change and be involved in new things. Right in the middle of the morning there were questions about how ministers themselves feel about change and handle change, and live with change. 

Remember, we were told, that change is tiring – remember self-care. Sometimes we all need a break, a treat, a change of focus. We need to look after ourselves if we are going to look after other people. 

 

Years ago when I did First Aid Training I remember being taught – the first thing is to look after yourself. 

If you see someone collapsed on the ground, don’t just rush in – they might have been electrocuted, and the danger is that there could be a trailing live wire somewhere and then you might get electrocuted too – and you’re no good to anyone if you’re unconscious.

Self-care – self preservation, even - can be important.

This is true – but I think Jesus is saying something deeper here than just look after yourself so you can look after others.

 

Jesus says ‘love others as you love yourself’

You must first be able to look at yourself and know you are lovable, and loved and lovely, if you are to show that measure of love and acceptance to other people. 

Jesus is not just talking about self-care, and he’s certainly not talking about the sort of self-love that is selfish or narscissistic, he is talking about a love that flows through and out of a person. 

 

That love begins with God.

Jesus does not just say ‘Love God’ he says ‘Love the Lord your God’ – God is not a strange idea or an inanimate object. 

He is the Lord our God – the one who first loves us, who pours out love, who so loves the world that he sends his Son.

We gather here to worship and we remember that we are loved by God – we sit here bathed in that love – the Lord our God is here and he looks on us with love.

 

In the last few weeks of my mum’s life I visited her as much as I could, and I got into a habit I suppose of saying, just before it was time for me to leave “is there anything else you need me to do for you before I go?”. One day she answered by saying ‘No, I just want to look at you’. And we sat and looked at each other – and I remembered how much she loved me and I hope she knew how much I loved her.

 

Jesus describes that kind of love – he certainly knew that depth of love with God the Father.

God loves us – he is our Lord and our God – and as he looks on us with love we know ourselves beloved children of God.

Filled with that love we can certainly begin to love God in return – with some, if not all of our heart, soul and mind. 

We also being to learn to love ourselves. To realise that though we are not perfect we are perfectly loved.

From this knowledge of being lovable and being lovely comes the ability to love others as we love ourselves – to love freely and generously and knowing that God, who is the source of all love, is the Lord our God.

 

Which commandment is the greatest? Love. 

Live in the knowledge of the Love of God.

Love God with all your heart, soul and mind.

Love others as you love yourself.

 

Among all the things that have been cancelled because of the pandemic, in the face of concerns that many of our plans for Christmas have to be cancelled, I begin to hear more and more people say “love is not cancelled”.

Love is the greatest of the commandments.

Thanks be to God, who is love.

Amen.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Closing thoughts for October Synod by Zoom - in a time of Covid 19.

 One of the hardest things to bear in the last 8 months has been a sense of isolation – of being kept ‘distanced’.

I have been reading a number of studies of ‘trauma’ to help understand in some way what we are all going through, and how we might respond as people of faith.

I’m very grateful to our own Carla Grosch-Miller and the rest of the team at the ‘Tragedy and Congregations Project’ for the work they have done and are doing to help us understand our reactions to traumatic events and where we find God in them.

I have just finished reading a chapter of their book (“Tragedies and Christian Congregations – the practical theology of trauma”) in which Meg Warner, who has just begun teaching at Northern College, states “The Bible tells us we are not alone”.

Meg Warner points out that a huge amount of the writing of the books of the Bible is produced in the aftermath of some kind of trauma – slavery, famine, exile, invasion, crucifixion. 

 

The Bible tells us we are not alone because other people before us have gone through plagues – and worse – and got through it. We read the Bible and we can learn from this solidarity and from the rich telling of the story of how people coped and lived and even thrived.

And the Bible tells us we are not alone because other people have gone through these terrible things and found not only that God is with them despite the trauma, but that God is somehow with them in the trauma.

The Bible reminds us that we are in the company of God and God’s people, even when we sit alone in a chair in our house.

 

Early in lock-down I read through the book of Acts. It seemed a good time to remember how the church found its way in the first decades after the resurrection of Christ, as we were wondering what shape of church was going to be right for this time of lockdown.

There were stories of the disciples of Jesus learning to have faith and not fear, acquiring the Holy Habits of discipleship, spreading the gospel and adding daily to their number.

But I was really struck by passages like this from chapter 6:

“6 1-4 During this time, as the disciples were increasing in numbers by leaps and bounds, hard feelings developed among the Greek-speaking believers—“Hellenists”—toward the Hebrew-speaking believers because their widows were being discriminated against in the daily food lines. So the Twelve called a meeting of the disciples. They said, “It wouldn’t be right for us to abandon our responsibilities for preaching and teaching the Word of God to help with the care of the poor. So, friends, choose seven men from among you whom everyone trusts, men full of the Holy Spirit and good sense, and we’ll assign them this task. Meanwhile, we’ll stick to our assigned tasks of prayer and speaking God’s Word.” 

 

The church is growing – but there are arguments brewing and accusations of discrimination. This risks distracting the twelve apostles from their work of preaching – and so they find seven ‘deacons’ to do the practical work. 

Here is an early church that we might find we can relate to... life is not easy (and that’s before persecution, shipwreck and banishment from the synagogues). There are problems, and the leaders of the early church seem to be making it up as they go along. “The Bible tells us we are not alone”.

 

This is a church populated with people who actually met and walked with Jesus, who saw him resurrected, who received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.. and they still struggle to get it right.

But the book of Acts shows us that they never stop trying to tell the good news of the love of God in Jesus – and that as they struggle to work out what it means to be disciples of the risen Jesus they never stop listening to one another, attending to scripture and seeking  the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

 

One of my favourite phrases in the book of Acts comes when the church has had a huge meeting to decide how much of the Jewish law a gentile Christian has to accept. They write a letter for Paul, Barnabas, Judas Barsabbas & Silas to take with them to the churches of Antioch, which contains this phrase:

it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements..” and they list the rules they should keep.

 

Whatever the church we know looks, like as we live through this pandemic with all its change and restriction, we will need, like the early church, to be ready to make it up as we go along. 

We will need to remember that we are disciples of Jesus, who support and belong to one another, and we will need to seek the ways to live which seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.

 

The Bible tells us we are not alone.

The Bible tells us God is with us.

The Bible tell us to trust in God’s guidance.

In the love of the Father,

the grace of the Son

and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 

 

So let us close in prayer:

God of justice and peace

Embrace us with your strength and grace, we pray

That when the way ahead is hard to see

Your light and your truth may make us attuned to your Spirit,

So that we may walk your ways through Jesus Christ our Lord.   Amen.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Harvest - being faithful.

Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20       Matthew 21: 33-46

Here we go again – harvest. We’re singing (or mumbling behind our masks) ‘Come ye thankful people, come’ with its line about ‘all is safely gathered in e’er the winter storms begin’ with one eye on the window thinking ‘the winter storms are here already’. And if the actual weather wasn’t bad enough, we are in the middle of the metaphorical storm of the coronavirus pandemic. The temptation might be to change our focus to the warm hues of autumnal fruit and flowers, and allow ourselves to revel a little in the cozy, traditional, apple-scented memories of harvest-home.

But I think God’s word wants to say more to us than that.

 

We heard the story from Exodus chapter 20 where the Lord ‘who brought you up out of Egypt’ gives the people of God the ten commandments. There are of course commandments dealing with worship of God and God alone, about keeping the Sabbath and honouring our parents, and a list of the things which the people of God must not do.

 

But the most fascinating word, which only appears in some translations – is THEN.

Then God spoke all of these words.

 

The giving of the ten commandments does not just happen out of nowhere – it is part of a very much longer story, which the previous 19 chapters of the book of Exodus have been telling. 

We’ve had the birth and rescue of Moses, his encounter with the living God in the burning bush, the whole long struggle to get Pharaoh to set God’s people free from Egypt, and the dramatic escape across the Red Sea. 

Saved from the Egyptian army, the people have been in the desert and in the third month they arrive at Mount Sinai. Moses goes up the mountain and God talks to him, he comes back down and reports to the people. On his second journey up the mountain, God gives him these commandments and we have heard Moses report the commandments to the people when he comes back down a second time. 

Moses will go up Mount Sinai a third time and get a far more detailed set of commandments – which stretch for the next eleven chapters of Exodus. The people will become so impatient waiting for Moses that they will pressurise Aaron into setting up the golden calf for them to worship – and we are unlikely to have forgotten that in anger Moses will smash the tablets of stone on which the commandments are written. God will give the commandments again… and the people will be wandering in the desert for 40 years.

 

This is just part of a very long story, filled with grumbling and mistakes and desperation and forgetting that God is leading his people from slavery to the promised land.

 

But in all that long, long story, with all its twists and turns, there is one character who never forgets, never swerves from the purpose of care and love, never gives up. 

And of course that is God.

 

The worship of God, the holding of harvest services, the offering of first-fruits or of given a tenth of all we have… these things are all ways of reminding us of the steadfast faithfulness of God. 

 

As Philip Yancey says in his book “what’s so amazing abut grace?” – 

“grace means there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to make God love me less. It means that I, even I who deserve the opposite, am invited to take my place at the table in God’s family.”

 

Harvest, and especially harvest at this time of restriction and pandemic, is a good time to remind ourselves of the limitless love and grace of God – which runs right through the book of Exodus and way, way beyond.

 

When I first looked at this week’s reading from Exodus I found myself wondering ‘what does it mean to be the faithful people of God?’ – 

but as I thought about the whole story of God’s people in the Wilderness I found myself instead giving thanks for the God who is faithful even when we falter and fail, or are floundering and frail. Harvest isn’t about our faithful celebrations – it’s about our celebration of a faithful God.

 

And this perhaps familiar but somewhat puzzling parable of the tenants in the vineyard – what are we to make of that? What is Jesus trying to help us to learn as we encounter this story?

 

I think that in every parable Jesus wants us to bring our own experience to an understanding of what’s so amazing in the story. 

I’ve never owned a vineyard – but as part of my role as Synod moderator for the URC I sometimes have to deal with decisions about properties that we let out to tenants. Sometimes we have a tenant who might not be paying the rent that due. We’re a church, so we try to be understanding. 

Sometimes a tenant explains they are out of work, or have been ill, or something has happened that makes them fall behind in their rent. We try to be compassionate and merciful and a good witness of what good people do. We listen to the story, we give people time, we reschedule payments. There have even been cases where things have dragged on rather, for months, as we’ve tried to resolve the issues – but good landlord though the South Western Synod is, we would never behave like the owner of this vineyard.

 

When the time for the payment of rent comes, there’s no indication that the tenants can’t pay – they refuse.

More than that – they abuse, beat and even kill the rent-collectors.

The owner tries again – with more people sent to collect the rent. The same thing happens again.

The owner tries again – for a third time – this time sending his son. Still they refuse to pay.

Then and only then will the owner give up on those tenants – and get other tenants.

 

Jesus wants us to marvel at the patience and forbearance of the owner – who goes way beyond the actions of even the most understanding landlord. And Jesus concludes “this is the Lord’s doing and it is wonderful in our eyes”.

There it is again – a light shone on the faithfulness of God.

 

This harvest, we are called to celebrate once again God’s faithful and enduring love. Through the seasons, through the years, through our intransigence, through illness and weakness -  the love of God endures, continues to reach out, is endless and limitless, and all we need.

 

May we celebrate, despite all that is going on around us, with gratitude and praise.

Thanks be to God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

A ‘wild’ harvest.

Psalm 114,   Matthew 18: 21-35

 

I heard a church leader this week suggest that people in their church were far keener to return to the church building for the Harvest Festival than they were to get back to celebrate what is said to be the pinnacle of the church year - Easter. 

 

Perhaps some of that is about the timing of the two festivals in the course of this pandemic; perhaps some of it is about the place that harvest festival has in our hearts, with all the smells and tastes of autumn produce; but I’d like to think that at least some of it is that harvest puts us back in touch with the natural world. And perhaps our sense of belonging to the natural world has been heightened by our experiences over the last 6 months.

 

Unless you subscribe to some of the especially extreme conspiracy theories, the Covid19 epidemic is a natural phenomenon. Any virus is part of the created order, and so can be studied. We know how small viruses are, we understand how they ‘work’ biochemically, and we can track the way they attack the cells and systems of our bodies. But because we, too, are part of the created order we are subject to being struck down and even killed by this virus. In the end we are created of flesh and blood, we are mortal and as vulnerable as many other things in this world. This harvest of all harvests, we cannot think we live in a world which is tamed and controlled – this is a wild harvest.

 

In giving thanks for the harvest, we should remember our part in the living systems of the planet. More and more scientists reject the term ‘environment’ for the natural world – as if it is the backdrop for our human play. There is one world, one order of inter-dependent living systems, we are just a part of the life of the earth, and called to live in it and alongside other parts with care and with gratitude and appreciation. For too long the human race has sought to subdue and exploit the earth – we need to find ways to remember we are part of the life of the earth.

 

So I want to challenge us this harvest to engage in some “rewilding”. 

Listeners to the Archers will know the term from a farming context, but there are small ways we can all become wilder. I hope that in Lockdown you managed to get out and look at your immediate surroundings much more than in the hurly-burly of life. I have found footpaths in my immediate area I didn’t know existed – and managed to find the best places for blackberries, sloes and damsons. I have enjoyed watching the fields being sown, growing, and now being harvested, I have grown a few vegetables in the garden, and even on the hottest days ventured a swim in the nearest part of the River Tone (since I don’t have the pleasure of living by the sea).

 

I have also dipped into this book by Simon Barnes – “Rewild Yourself”. It contains simple suggestions of ways to become more aware and more appreciative of nature – and I would add, more grateful to the creator God who made it all. Harvest can be a chance to thank God for the beauty of wildness.

In his introduction, Simon Barnes quotes a section from “the Chronicles of Narnia”, where Lucy finds the magic spell which makes the hidden things visible - including the great lion, Aslan. We know of course that CS Lewis wrote the character of Aslan to help us reflect on our relationship with God.

 

We can find God’s work when we look closely at nature – and even find God himself. But as we work to make ourselves wilder to appreciate nature, we also need to allow God to be wild. If harvest makes us think that nature can be neatly lined up like carrots on the window-sill, and God with them, we are not looking carefully enough. Nature can be wild and strange – and our God is bigger and wilder than his creation.

 

So Psalm 114 – as well as giving raise to God for caring for and saving God’s people, is also clear that God is not to be tamed – he is to be treated with awe

“Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob..”

This wild harvest, as we try to re-wild ourselves, we remember the wonder and the wildness of God.

 

So where does the Gospel reading and Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness fit in?

Well, we could certainly reflect on the forgiveness that we should seek for all the ways in which human beings have harmed the wild world.

But I think Jesus is saying something more than pointing out our need for forgiveness – he is also reminding us of the kinds of people we are meant to be in relation to others.

Being wild does not mean we do exactly as we please. We do well to remember that we are creatures who are part of the order of the created world – but that doesn’t mean we are just ‘brute beasts’ who cannot be expected to behave in ways that are loving and just.

 

One of my Methodist colleagues was telling me last week about a church where many new people have come to know God’s love in Christ in recent weeks. It was a great story of growth and hope – but, he said, one woman in particular was starting to realise that being full of the joy of being loved was not enough in her discipleship of Jesus. She was feeling loved, and was understandably joyful about that – but she had not yet learned to love and care for others.. that was her next goal in life. 

I thought of her when I read this part of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is clear that being forgiven should lead us to being forgiving.

Being wild and relating to a wild God teaches us how to be truly alive.

But being truly alive is not just pleasing ourselves and wildly throwing caution to the wind – we respond to the life that is in us in ways that are full of joy and delight – but are also peaceful and just and caring.

 

May this harvest fill us with life and hope – and produce in us a harvest of love so that God’s Kingdom may grow – wild and free and abundantly for all.

In Jesus’ name.

Amen.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Coming out of lockdown: healing from trauma

Genesis 45. 1-15 , Matthew 15. 21-28


Today

We’re back! Well, some of us.. in masks… keeping an appropriate distance.

At times during the pandemic I have found myself describing the virus as being like a lens- magnifying those things which were there before. 

We have seen that neighbourly care can be really important; that we all need hugs; that too much news makes you tetchy; that nothing tastes better than a freshly -baked loaf of bread; that our homes are important, but they’re not everything; and that we miss our friends from church.

 

And what about our faith? I think I have learned that I need to make time to stop each day and pray and read my Bible; that I am aware of relying on God much more when life is difficult; and that I somehow need to share my faith more with the people around me.

 

 

I’m sure you have your own things you have learned.

 

One of the things that we’ve missed is the opportunity to come together in our churches. Here we can share together our journey of faith, week by week. We can learn from each other and offer up all we have and are to God. And when we read the Bible together we can ask what the lens of the Bible has to show us about our lives, our God and our faith.

 

So let’s look together at the story of Joseph

Thanks to Andrew Lloyd-Webber, we all feel we know the story of Joseph and his amazing technicolour dream-coat.

This is a part of the story towards the end of Joseph’s long and involved tale. 

Joseph, now a top-ranking Egyptian official, reveals his true identity to his brothers. There follows a scene of great weeping, kissing & falling on necks – not very socially distanced!

 

But Joseph has been very distant from his brothers. None of us can forget how Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers – to the ‘hairy Ishmaelites’ - that’s how Joseph ended up in Egypt.

 

In lockdown I managed to read Meg Warner’s book about Joseph. It was reviewed in July’s “Reform” and I can really recommend it. Meg Warner calls the story of Joseph  ‘a story of resilience’. 

 

Meg is the new OT tutor at Northern College in Manchester. Her book is really interesting – she goes through the whole story of Joseph as a story of someone suffering a series of traumas, and asks how his faith helps him to survive and even thrive. Alongside Joseph’s story she tells something of her own story and her own need for resilience on the face of trauma as well. She, too, uses the image of a lens – as she talks of these Bible stories as a lens which helps us to understand how life is for people of faith, and how faith helps us to live life.

 

Throughout the terrible things which Joseph endures he somehow finds God with him – as he experiences the hatred of his brothers, the selling into slavery, the incident with Potiphar’s wife, the spell in prison, the appointment as Pharaoh’s special advisor, and finally the reunion with the brothers and then his father.

Not only is God with Joseph, God takes care of him and steers him and his family through to a place of prosperity and life.

 

I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say that we have been through a global trauma as we have faced this global pandemic. You might have experienced great loneliness, weariness or depression; we know that over 46,000 people have died – leaving families and friends in mourning; you might have missed out on family celebrations; you or your family might have suffered financially; and we know that our young people’s lives have been turned upside down by the cancellation of exams and the current frustration about predicted results.

 

Our trauma is unlikely to have been exactly like Joseph’s trauma, and yet the God of Joseph has been with us and remains with us, and in Jesus offers healing and life.

 

So let’s turn to the Gospel reading

Jesus and his disciples have travelled out of Galilee, North to the region of Tyre and Sidon. They are in a foreign place – and a foreign woman comes to ask help from Jesus. She is an outsider, who does not belong with Jesus and the disciples. But she recognises the healing Jesus offers and comes to ask for healing for her daughter. 

 

Here is another person facing trauma – her daughter is described as being ‘tormented by a demon’. We don’t know the detail, but we do know what it is like to see the one we love most suffering – it is traumatic.

And so she risks the further trauma of rejection by Jesus.. and begs for his help.

Jesus at first seems to want to reject her –  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. 

But she persists, even when he calls her a ‘dog’. 

Jesus accepts her reasoning that even the dogs can beg for scraps, commends her faith and heals her daughter. 

Perhaps Jesus himself experiences trauma, as he has to learn to expand his understanding of who can receive God’s grace, that day. But in the end Jesus sees her a someone worthy of the grace and healing God offers and makes this woman one of the cared-for people of God. 

 

So coming back to us.

It is not enough for us to sit here today and just feel better that we are back.

 

Of course we give thanks to God that God has walked with us through these 5 months. Like Joseph, we thank God for the point we have reached and like Joseph we might well be feeling relief and joy! 

 

As we enjoy being church together  - even in this rather strange way -  we need to ask how we have known God with us – 

and how we can carry that knowledge with us into the future as we continue to find the resilience to handle the long-lasting effects of the trauma we have been through.

 

What does it mean to say God is with us? 

How is God leading us into the rest of 2020 and beyond? And what does it mean for us to be followers of Jesus?

 

As we re-open our churches we need to remember the woman who was a foreigner but who knew her need, and experienced God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

We need to ask ‘who is this church for?’.  If our answer is ‘this church is for everyone’, we need to further ask ‘how can we make that fact known to people who are currently outside these walls? And how can we make this a place of healing from trauma?’. 

We are followers of Jesus – that means that we go with God, and we invite all others to journey with us, too.

 

I’d like to end with a poem – or is it a prayer? – written by Bernard Thorogood. 

Bernard was the URC’s General Secretary from 1980 to 1992 – he died in April this year, having retired to Australia. I commend his little book of “Old Grey Prayers” – written a few years ago. The illustrations are by his son, Neil, who has just joined us in the synod, as minister of Trinity-Henleaze and Thornbury.

I will give Bernard the last word…

 

Today, tomorrow and in all weathers,

may I follow him?

When life is going well and when it is hard,

may I follow him.

When I can make sense of things – and when I cannot

may I follow him.

 

Sometimes it all seems a story, far, far away

that does not connect with me,

         and I wonder if I am right to pray 

         that I may follow him.

 

And as the years pass, and I become less mobile,

I can only sit; be quiet and wait

on the slow ride home.

 

Lord Jesus, stay with me.

 

Amen.