We recently had an Away Day with the PCCs of our Benefice. In the opening worship I used a reflection on the scripture: Luke 10:25-37 The Good Samaritan “Called to be an Innkeeper” by Elaine Gisbourne from the book ‘Wild Goose big book of worship resources‘. This was particularly appropriate for St Barnabas Darby Green with a now disused inn next door, but left the need to for something similarly appropriate for St Mary’s Eversley, where a well-used footpath goes through the churchyard. So I wrote this:
I bring you the passer-by,
those in a hurry to get where they think they’re going,
or stuck on their high horse unable to dismount grace-fully.
I offer you the passers-by,
who see the future in some other sphere,
of learning, of leadership, of leisure,
and notice it not in the suffering of friend or stranger.
What will stop them in their tracks,
prompt them to turn round, come back,
pique their interest,
ignite their compassion,
calm their fears?
I give you the passer-by,
in the rainfall of their fears and anxieties,
when grief or hardship strike,
or they pause to acknowledge –
there is something beyond their sphere of influence.
Their path may seem a far-cry from yours,
and yet it passes close-by,
intersecting where needs are met,
hope is found,
and grace abounds.
Feel free to use if you deem it worthy and appropriate, with suitable credit please, and note in the comments if at all possible.
It is always tough to try and convey the Gospel message, alongside paying appropriate respect to those who have fallen during WWI and in conflicts since. Today in this centenary of Armistice was no exception. However, it was an immense privilege to lead people in Darby Green in their Service of Remembrance, which thanks to the creativity of church members and local Guides, Brownies and Rainbows was focused around two falls of poppies, one inside, and one outside.
Below is a transcript of roughly what I said, alongside images of the barbed wire used in two forms; some made for me to use safely as a visual aid, and some of those made by the congregation from pipe-cleaners.
Can anyone tell me what ‘sanctuary’ means? Refuge, place of safety, hideout, hiding place, shelter…
What sort of things might you look for if you were creating your own sanctuary? Hidden, covering over you, protection…. (the children talked a lot about tree houses and hiding under the bed, to which I referred later informally.)
In WW1, around all of the trenches in Sanctuary Wood in Belgium where the video was filmed, there would have been a lot of barbed wire. The only barbed wire there now, is wrapped round tree trunks snapped off where they were bombed in WW1. Today they are used as a war memorial, a place to remember those who died there.
You each now have the opportunity to make a piece of barbed wire – and before the adults get all worried, we’re using pipe-cleaners, not real wire! In each of the paper bags you’re going to be given, there are 7 pieces of pipecleaner, 1 long one, and 6 short ones. You can twist the short ones, round the long ones, to create a very simple piece of barbed wire. Hand out, demonstrate, create.
As you look at your piece of barbed wire, think about the things that keep you safe, the places you might think of as a sanctuary, the people whom you feel safe with, or somewhere you hide if you play hide-and-seek. It might be your home, or your bed, a favourite place on a walk; a parent, an animal or something entirely different.
Would barbed wire (show real thing) really help you create any of those feelings and emotions? No!
… Often the places which we might describe as a sanctuary are not as simple and straightforward as we might wish. There are times when we feel vulnerable once again because something within them changes or disappears. Barbed wire around a trench was as much a danger to the soldiers that it was meant to protect, as it is to those whom they were being protected from. In the First World War, many thousands of people died because they got caught up on the very barbed wire that they had been using for protection in their place of sanctuary.
The sanctuary that is being talked about in our Bible passage is God’s presence. In the time before Jesus, people had tried to make a special place which they called a sanctuary, which they called ‘holy’ and carried around with them. But it became dangerous to them because it became more important to them than God himself, and they got hung up on it.
Jesus was was also in effect, a soldier; in his case, he was God’s Son following God’s orders. Jesus died, because he got caught up on the barbed wire of the people who he was actually trying to help misunderstanding who he was. People killed Jesus because they couldn’t understand that God’s love for them, and God’s wish that they would have a permanent place of real sanctuary and safety with him. That is why we describe Jesus as having made the ultimate sacrifice.
I took my length of barbed wire, twisted and looped it around itself, and asked what does it look like?A crown of thorns.
If we loop our sections of pipe-cleaner barbed wire around on themselves the same way and twist the ends, we also have something that also looks like a crown of thorns.
In this way, we can be helped to remember that Jesus sacrificed his life to help others come into God’s presence, and that the motivation for that was his love for us. When Jesus lived two thousand years ago, we were not alive then, but he still knew that we needed to live in a perfect place of sanctuary at peace with one another, and that is only possible in God’s presence.
Remembrance Day can in some ways become a sanctuary; a place of safety in which are able to come together to remember those who in the past have sacrificed their lives. Some died because they loved and sought to protect their country and a way of life. Some died because they were following orders. Some died through no fault of their own. Some died to save the lives of friends, or to protect people because they realised that you do not have to know someone to love their right to life. It is good that we are a community which believes their sacrifice should not be forgotten.
The danger is that, like barbed wire, Remembrance Day can become a difficult obstacle in itself. For those who have experienced the explosions and dangers of warfare themselves, it is dangerous because it brings back those memories and it can be difficult to live with the pain and emotions that causes. For many of us, the danger is that we only remember on this one day of the year, the sacrifices that other people have made in the past.
Barbed wire, especially when it is twisted into a crown of thorns, is a helpful reminder that we must never forget all those whose lives have been sacrificed to enable us to have the freedom to love one another and to live in relative peace. As a reminder that Jesus died with a similar crown around his head, we are encouraged to remember that this safety also gives us the freedom to discover what it is to live in the sanctuary of God’s presence. We will only live at peace with each other if we are willing to offer people a place of safety and sanctuary with us, and as Jesus understood only too well, we made need to make some sacrifices ourselves, to make that possible.
The barbed wire ‘crown of thorns’ was placed on the simple wooden cross that stands in church, adorned also today with poppies.
To see the broad smile our resident celiac’s face, when she received the same communion bread as everyone else this morning, made preaching a slightly ‘alternative’ sermon worth while. The gluten-free pitta bread was also popular with several others, and some suggested it should be a regular thing.
At the start of service I got the children up and talked about the selection of bread I’d got laid out on a tray:
Many of us are used to the way that Jesus describes himself in this morning’s Gospel – the “bread of life”.
It’s a lovely image isn’t it; Jesus being one of the most simple and ubiquitous sources of nourishment and therefore health and well-being that the world has. Bread. We could live on bread and water if there was nothing else. Might help to have a few vegetables to keep us in perfect working order, but we would survive.
When Jesus shared a meal with 5000+ hungry folk, he used 5 loaves of bread (as well as 2 fish). That’s all. 5000 people, 5 loaves, oh, and God’s power at work through him. The people’s physical hunger was fed, so they were able to stay near Jesus, and have their spiritual hunger nourished. It was the miracle that sparked off this conversation Jesus was having about bread – with that many witnesses, word had got around as to what he had done; Jesus knew that.
The Jews knew their history, and they knew that someone else had provided miraculous bread for their ancestors in the past. When wandering in a desert for 40 years, the Israelites had called that miraculous bread, manna. In that case, through Moses, God told the people what to do with it, and gave them just the right amount to feed them each day (in that case with quail not fish). It gave them the energy they needed to continue their physical journey, whilst they learnt the patience and obedience required for them to enter the Promised Land.
In the bit of the Bible we heard this morning, Jesus is talking about himself being a bread that helps us on our journey’s, that helps us be patient and do as he tells us, that nourishes us spiritually by being a point of contact between ourselves and God. Jesus is the sort of bread that ‘teaches’ (v45), encourages, and builds us up so that we can be more like the people God really wants us to be (Eph 4:29).
I then asked the children to come and look at the bread again, and why they though I might have laid out two different versions of each sort of bread, and got round to one lot being ‘gluten free’. Then we talked about gluten making some people ill, but that without it, bread has a habit of falling apart, so to cook it, people often use something called Xanthem Gum. I also let the children eat some of the bread if they wanted it.
If I gave ordinary bread to people who I know are made ill by the gluten found in wheat and barley grains, would that be a good thing? No! It would be unkind, hurtful and upsetting for them. It could make them very ill indeed. Equally, it would also be wrong if I didn’t give them anything at all. In both cases, it excludes them from sharing in a meal we could otherwise share together. Often, if we know someone who can’t eat gluten we give them their own special bread, or they may bring their own. However, the ideal would be to all share the same sort of bread, the gluten free sort, so that everyone receives the same, that way everyone feels included in the meal.
Jesus was “Gluten-free”. There was nothing in him, or that he did, that exuded them, turned them away, or made them ill. When people came to him, they all received the same love, the same understanding, of what was deep inside them. Whatever the people who approached him were like, sad, angry, hurt, obstructive, ill, confused, hopeless, they received the same love from Jesus, even if it was served in different ways…. the angry and obstructive would be challenged to change so that they could live more like God wanted them to, the ill and the confused would be comforted and healed. We might describe the love of God that he shared as being the Xanthan Gum that held our Gluten-free Jesus together.
We are used to hearing the church described as the body of Christ (a phrase that comes out of various teachings of St. Paul in 1 Cor 12), and by coming to share in hearing the bible, in prayer and worship, and in the wine and bread, we are doing just that, we are trying to be the body of Jesus in the world today. Being the body of Christ or all members of one body (Eph 4:25) as this mornings passage in Ephesians puts it, is also about how we live our lives, how we relate to other people, whether we’re being a good example of who Jesus was and what he came to do.
In our Gospel, Jesus is challenging those who are deliberately picking holes in what he is saying, and not looking at and listening to who he is saying he is and what he is doing to prove it. The Jews were past masters at arguing with each other, sharing what they thought, rather than listening to what others might be telling or showing them of what God was doing. That’s what had landed the Israelites in wilderness needing manna from heaven, and little had changed.
By the time St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians the problem had transferred into the Christian community. We can all think of situations where those difficulties are visible in our own families, friendships, and even dare I say it here in our church community. Why? Because being fond of our own views, getting angry, bitter or resentful when others offer alternative views or ways of approaching things, are the bits of being human that are not part of the way God made us. Local or familial disagreements are small, but they are not that far removed to many of the situations that we are so often eager to decry around the world today.
If we’ve got things in us that are simply unpalatable to others, make them physically, mentally or spiritually ill, and if we aren’t looking and listening to what God is doing, then we’re not showing people grace (Eph 4:29), or living in love (Eph 5:1). Therefore we’re not showing ourselves to be God’s beloved children. If there are things about the way that we behave that mean people can’t ‘stomach us’, we’re not holding together as good bread should, and we need more of the Xanthan Gum of grace and love.
This morning I’ve set aside enough gluten free pitta-bread on the altar for us to all share in one bread; gluten-free Jesus-bread. When we share in bread and wine, it is meant to be a unifying symbol that binds us together, because we are all sharing in the body of Christ, to enable us to be the body of Christ. As we take and eat it, safe in the knowledge that there’s nothing in it that can make us ill, we will also be reminded of the fact that it’s held together because it contains Xanthan Gum, and that we too need to act in all our relationships with the gum of grace and love that binds us together as the body of Christ, to him who is the bread of life.
Back at St. Barnabas this week, with the sun streaming in through the window, and God’s presence very much present, quietly at work among those who need to feel his touch. One or two commented afterwards they wanted to ‘listen again’ so the link is here. For those who prefer to read things back, here’s the text of my sermon:
It’s May now, and there’s a sense in which we may be feeling that we’ve left Easter far behind us. The world has moved on from chocolate eggs and fluffy chicks. Many children and young people have entered the season of revision and exams, or in our case, the delights of dissertation writing, due consideration of future employment and the need for a place to live. We might encourage, suggest and hopefully even have modelled how to do these things well, and we can tell them how they might approach what they’re facing, but each has to understand and apply for themselves the skills and knowledge they’ve been taught by us or others. Whether we are parents, friends, teachers, or even if we feel like by-standers, the only examination we have to pass is whether we are willing to continue to love them, unconditionally, whatever fruit their efforts produce in the way of results, careers and jobs.
Yet, as Christians, the context of that unconditional love is very much still set within the Easter Season, especially as we prepare to remember Jesus’ Ascension to his Father, and the work his disciples were commissioned for through the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. When Jesus was using the allegory of the vine, with himself as the rootstock of God’s love, he very clearly had his own journey to Jerusalem and the Cross in mind. He too had taught his followers by word and example all he could about the love of God for all people, and that was propelling him toward the Cross so that he, not they, took most difficult examination of them all.
That is why there is a real sense of urgency in our Gospel this morning: just like any parent or teacher who finds themselves repeating the same instructions and encouragements time (and time, and time), again. Jesus didn’t have much more time left before that final exam in which to get the message across: “Love one another”; as God has loved you in my existence, for goodness sake go out and “love one another”; to find the real joy that is the fruit of what I am about to do, he says, take down all the barriers that exist between yourselves, your Father God, and each other, and “love one another”. That, is why he calls them friends.
Peter, bless him, is only just putting the message into practice when we reach the point of our Epistle this morning. Peter has been called to the home of Cornelius, by a vision that tore down the barriers that had been created between the so-called ‘clean and the unclean’, Jew and Gentile, one group of humans and another. There he proclaims the revelation of God’s story, God’s love, revealed in Jesus in the preceding weeks; Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost and all. Before this reading, Peter’s account of all that has apparently been brief, and notably Cornelius has not even had the chance to respond with words of faith and belief in the forgiveness Jesus offers, before the Holy Spirit steps in again, enabling him to praise God for what he has done in Jesus. That outpouring of the Spirit was as much for Peter’s benefit as for Cornelius and his family, confirming for Peter that these uncircumcised people were regarded by God as fit vessels for his love, his presence and his voice.
Looked at together these two readings emphasise the unconditional love that Peter, and we as his fellow disciples, are called to put into action as a response to God’s love in Jesus, dwelling in us through the Holy Spirit. They also underline that to make that love visible, to enable the joy of that love to infect the whole world, the barriers that exist between those who serve and those who lead, and between one social or faith grouping and another, must come down. Nothing must stand in the way of the waters of baptism being poured out.
We might like to think that the concept of servants and masters is dead and buried in the western world, and yet we have probably heard whispers of the woes of those trafficked into servitude and then illegally hidden, or abandoned to the iniquities of our immigration system. Elections too, however local, also highlight the muddy waters of who serves who in a democracy: we who elect people to serve our local interests have a habit of receiving commands or consequences from higher up the food-chain of politics that are not apparently motivated by the love and equality that might have been the ideals with which politicians were voted into their positions.
We’re probably not so blinkered as to think that there are no barriers between the social and faith groupings of both our country and the world, even within a single faith or between its denominations or sects. Yet, does the love we have for others make us hungry enough to be open to seeing and acting upon a vision of a different world, where at the very least the testimony of God’s love can be seen and heard, so that his Holy Spirit can be given space to work? In the light of today’s readings, we might like to consider whether we might be culturally or theologically prone to excluding others from the love of God, the waters of baptism, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the call to shared ministry in Jesus’ name.
Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church in London spoke at a conference of Anglican clergy in Oxford Diocese – I wasn’t there but friends were, and YouTube has its uses! Among the important truths he shared about Christians in the Middle East was the fact that they present a reconciling picture. Talking of the fear that Christianity will disappear in some places (but not in his view completely from the region), he said that “in places where Christians do disappear there will be greater disruption and conflict because the Christians are a buffer, and reconcilers, and they present a loving example” of how to live at peace with their neighbours. That is a huge challenge to those of us who live in safer political climates. If we turn what he said into a question, how much do we live as a buffer to disruption and conflict, as reconcilers and at peace with our neighbours?
What lies at the heart of Jesus’ command to abide, dwell, and be rooted in his love, is the desire that we unconditionally love one another. The complete joy of which we are invited to partake, comes from sharing in God’s mission of love. Jesus kept his Father’s commandment to love all the way through his self-sacrifice on the Cross to the Resurrection. If the forgiveness and pruning of our sinful desires that we experience because of his actions means anything to us at all (as we probably considered last week with the first part of this image of the vine), we also have to accept that the Cross and Resurrection are proof of God’s love for all of humanity. Indeed we cannot experience the fullness of our own humanity and God’s authority in our lives, unless we do so in relationship with others, all others, not just people who we might deem as being ‘like us’.
There is in effect an examination that as Christians we all have to pass, and it is an examination of the quality of our love. Each of us has to understand and apply for ourselves the skills and knowledge we’ve been taught by our Father God, and his Son our teacher Jesus, and provide living examples of our willingness to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in applying it in the most difficult, and/or unexpected of circumstances. Words are not enough, for “the sound of our faith has more power if it is heard through works of righteousness” (Maximus the Confessor, quoted by Archbishop Angaelos) and those works must be works of love.
My sermon this week, reflects the nature of our calling as Christians to listen to Jesus, and those who live, love and speak truth in his name, even, perhaps especially, when it’s counter to what is peddled by political leaders and news-mongers.
This afternoon at the St. George’s Day Parade service, I’m going to (and did) briefly touch on the fact that St. George – the real one, no dragons here – had a Greek father, and a mother who was a Christian from the large Roman province of Syria Palestine. He lived out his soldiering career as a Christian, possibly protecting and releasing those who were falsely imprisoned, neither of which would have made him popular. He was martyred for his unwillingness to denounce his Christian faith. The thought-provoking irony of having a Christian Syrian Palestinian soldier as our Patron Saint should not be lost on us in the next few days.
There is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo, called Ghassan Ward.
“[His] bishop was kidnapped in April 2013, [his] church was destroyed, and [his] house was bombed. [His] two sons left the country, [his] wife died of cancer and [he] lost two… close family members because of the bombings.” But despite all this, Ghassan chose to stay in Syria, and care for his hurting community. “Many of my parish were rich before, now they are poor. They have no work, no income and all the savings are spent during the years of war,” he says. “The role of the church is not only having the services – we welcome the people and we try to help solve their problems. God gave us the love. It’s not easy to do this… The needs of the people are very big; we’re trying to meet their needs… We also help non-Christians. They are our neighbours, we live with them, and we cannot neglect a person who is hungry. When we give them a loaf of bread, the love of Christ is written on it.”
This story was told this week by the Open Doors charity, that serves and supports persecuted Christians. I have had it verified directly via one of the clergy and peers travelling in Syria this week, as typical of the work churches in the region are undertaking.
So what have these two people, St. George and a contemporary Syrian clergyman, got to do with this morning’s very famous, and deceptively simple parable?
Jesus is making some important points about who he is, but also about us. They are based round a claim that he fulfills the Old Testament prophesy of Ezekiel 34, where the Lord says he will rescue sheep “from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness” (Ezek 34:12) and that he will “place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.”
Why it is that Jesus is in the position to be both the Lord God and King David, and thus the Good Shepherd of all God’s sheep, is one of those things that this parable seeks to explain, and leads up to at the end of John 10. There Jesus declares “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Everything Jesus says and does, is based on, and returns to, his relationship with his Father; that is the means by which he has the willingness, love and authority to both lay down his life, and take it up again.
Jesus is also reminding his listeners, Jews like himself, children of God’s covenant with Moses, that God has always been interested in bringing more than just them into a relationship with him. This is being fulfilled in him, because it is through his death and resurrection that God reaches beyond the old covenant to the rest of the sheep in the world, a world that 3-4 centuries later would boast a Christian martyred soldier of Greek and Syrian heritage, and today includes a beleaguered Syrian priest with nothing left but his faith, funding from Open Doors, a team of like-minded survivors, and his desire to love all those in his community. Jesus came to create one single universal flock of people who know and love God, and have the freedom to do so.
The bond between the sheep and the shepherd, as well as the Father and the Son, is one of trust and love. When he styles himself as the “Good” Shepherd, there’s a lot more depth to the meaning than the bland little English word “good” suggests. It is more emphasising that the trust and love that Jesus offers people is attractive – it is what motivates people like Ghassan to be risking their lives in places like Aleppo. We, and more importantly those who’ve not encountered Jesus before, should see something beautiful, inspiring and ultimately counter-cultural in who he is revealed to be, and through what he calls us to do. When Jesus says, ‘My own know me… [and] listen to my voice’ (John 10:14 and 16), he is demanding our willingness to trust and love him, as he did his Father, and at the very least, to be willing to be obedient to the example that he sets us, through the inspiration of his voice, in this parable as among many others he told.
This was completely revolutionary and counter cultural to Jesus’ world, filled as it was with hatred and suspicion, violence and counter-violence… a world that perhaps sounds all too similar to our own?! In the context of his conversation with and in front of the Pharisees, Jesus is saying, stop listening only to your traditions, your senior religious figures, whether what they are saying sounds good or not. Instead, Jesus is saying, start listening direct to God, to a vision of a world that is different, where people share what they have with their neighbour without worrying about where they fit in any particular religious or political picture or ideal.
Do we want to be ‘good’? Do we want to be beautiful? Do we want to be shepherds, shepherds who welcome all-comers to the fold? Do we want to listen to the voice of Jesus, the voice of truth, the voice of love?
There are two levels, two areas of the world stage, on which we are invited today to respond to those questions; there’s the macro level, and rather closer to home, the micro.
On the macro-level, where is the beautiful love of Jesus for all God’s people, most visible? One place it would seem, is Aleppo where Ghassan Ward works bravely and painstakingly with other churches of many denominations to feed Jesus’ sheep. That, I hope you agree, is beautiful. The same could be said for the work of the Open Doors organization which supports him, supports vulnerable Christians in Egypt, India, Iran, and nearly 50 other countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian. If that work and those places are where the love of God for his people, and the love of his people for Jesus is most visible, perhaps theirs are the voices we need to take most care to listen to.
Still on a macro-level, perhaps we need to start questioning more carefully what we’re told by our political and dare I say it, our religious leaders, and certainly by today’s mainstream press. Where are we reading the counter-cultural voices, the stories of love, the hidden truths – even if they’re unpalatable or unpopular and don’t fit the current zeitgeist? Jesus says false shepherds flee the sheep in their care, and so we see those with authority playing fast and loose with the security and welfare of our neighbours, because their paperwork isn’t complete or they can’t contribute financially to society because of their disabilities. Sometimes even not knowing who to believe about the reality of whether a chemical attack happened or not, is better than believing the stories of either side without question. What would Jesus have us listen to and believe?
Which brings things rather closer to home, closer to the micro-level of our own parish and benefice, perhaps pertinently on this the day of our Annual Parochial Church Meeting, with St. Barnabas’s to follow on Wednesday. I’m sure you will want to listen later to Rev’d Lerys, as our Priest-in-Charge, but collectively we need to listen to how Jesus wants us to care for his flock, to look at the neighbouring ‘folds’ or parishes, to see where they need help to do the same, or where they might be able to help us.
And what about the other sheep, those that walk past the church in the sunshine, ride down the lane into the forest, stand at the school gate, sit at home and knit, sew or garden, and use the village shop and pubs? They need to know that Jesus is attractive, beautiful and good too, and that can only be done through what we say, and do.
Jesus had a two-fold vocation: to save the sheep currently in his care, and to enlarge the flock considerably by bringing in a whole lot of very different sheep (John10:16). That vocation is ours, because we already know Jesus. Our responsibility now, is to listen to his voice, so that we know where and how to seek the other sheep that he wants brought into his fold.
HAPPY EASTER! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
This morning was a great chance to consider the Resurrection through the eyes of St. Mark with the children of our congregation taking part. So the following is something like what I said… with some of the props!
Who has already had some Easter Egg this morning?! Anyone willing to ‘fess up?!
So, I’ve 3 eggs, decorated or foil wrapped eggs, 3 Easter Eggs here for us to explore… and I’m sorry if those further away can’t see the action here, but eggs is eggs and don’t come (much) bigger! You are welcome to come closer if you wish.
We’ve got 3 eggs, all looking very pretty here, and we’re going to see if we can crack them into a glass bowl.
Egg 1: Russian icon egg, pretty, Jesus on it, HARD BOILED.
Egg 3: Creme egg wrapped, wooden egg, open it…. nothing.
How do those eggs make you feel? Confused, disappointed, shocked… (hungry?!) What day is it today? Easter Day! What do you think should be in those eggs? Chocolate! What’s the date today? April 1st, April Fool’s Day…. Check my watch; still before noon. Do you think all this is just a joke?
Why not? ….. Hopefully get an answer that involves the empty tomb.
Why don’t the children sit down here at the front (or with parents) for a few minutes…
There are four different accounts of the Easter story, Matthew’s, Luke’s, John’s and the one we heard this morning is…? Mark’s.
In Mark’s Gospel, that we heard just now, what surprises us? No-one meets Jesus… there’s only one angel… there’s three women… the story is quite short… it ends without the women having done what the angel asked of them.
Mark’s story focuses on the confusion, shock and disappointment that three women experience at Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.
The Friday night that Jesus died, two ladies called Mary, friends of Jesus, had watched as a man called Joseph of Arimathea, who secretly wondered if Jesus heralded a new part of God’s relationship with the Jews, had buried Jesus in a stone tomb. He’d rolled a big stone over the opening to stop people stealing the body.
36 hours later, and they’ve brought their friend Salome to help them anoint Jesus’ body with precious oils. They’re expecting to encounter the problem of moving the huge stone from the tomb entrance, but instead they’re confused by the fact it’s been rolled away.
Were the eggs that I brought with me this morning anything like you might have expected? No! Were they confusing? Yes.
We all know that when we discover that things aren’t quite what we’re expecting, we become uncomfortable. We cast about for something that’s what we think of as normal, or expected. If we don’t find what we’re looking for, we’re suddenly hyper-sensitive to what’s different, or new. This is a good thing – it makes us curious. It’s how we gain new experiences and is how we learn.
So, the women are shocked and uncomfortable, but they are also curious, so they go inside the tomb. What are they looking for inside the tomb? Jesus’ body.
What do they find? Angel… man dressed in white. Where’s Jesus? Risen… (going to meet the disciples in Galilee).
The Angel says “Jesus isn’t here. He’s been raised from the dead. The women are to go and tell his other disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.”
That’s the important bit… like the nice yellow, yolk in hard-boiled egg. It’s the important bit at the centre of the story. This isn’t a completely empty place, like my little wooden egg. Yes, they’re horribly disappointed, confused and shocked, but they’ve just been given a really important piece of information; they’ve learnt something so knew it’s never happened before in the history of the world. Someone has died, their friend Jesus has died, and risen to life again… resurrection!
So, what’s that important news again? Jesus is risen. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia.
What’s the other bit of news the angel gave them?… Get the adults to help… they were to go and tell the other disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.
It’s easy to get distracted isn’t it? We get all excited about one particular bit of a new discovery, and something else about it gets forgotten until later. That’s like the chocolate covered egg I brought, isn’t it. We got all excited and distracted by the chocolate coating, that what might have been important about it, that message in the middle, all dribbled out and felt disappointing when we tried to crack it!
In a similar way, it’s very easy to remember the very exciting bit of Easter, that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead, and then get distracted by the chocolate so we forget the other bit about the angel’s Easter message. What were the women meant to do? Go and tell other people about Jesus being risen, and where they can meet him.
The women in Mark’s Gospel do run off, amazed, but also afraid. They’ve found everything that’s happened in the last few minutes, confusing, shocking and disappointing. They are just so overwhelmed by everything, that they are actually silent, they don’t tell anyone anything!
Is that what was meant to happen? No!
Did they never tell anyone anything about what they’d seen and heard? Hmmmmm….. Yes? Well, the resurrection story in Mark’s Gospel certainly stops there!
If yes…. So how do we know? How come it’s written down in Mark’s Gospel if they don’t tell anyone?
Here’s something that might surprise you: in the very earliest manuscripts (papers) that have been found of Mark’s Gospel, his whole Gospel stops there. Some people think that was all he wrote. Some people think that the last bit of his resurrection story, got lost… like the contents of that uncooked egg. Other people have actually tried to tell another last bit of the resurrection story for Mark, because they’ve added to the end of his Gospel.
The way that Mark’s Easter story ends, as we hear it this morning, is with the women running off and saying nothing to anyone. That’s really important because it makes us think. It makes us think about what’s important at the heart of the Jesus’ resurrection, and what we’re meant to do with that news. What are we meant to do with the news of Jesus’ resurrection? Share it!
The women must have shared the news eventually, because if they hadn’t, their story couldn’t have been told to Mark and written into his Gospel. We know the disciples did meet the risen Jesus, in Jerusalem and Galilee, because we are told that through the other Gospels. So this Easter, as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, we are reminded that we need to share that news. We need to tell people who don’t know, and remind people who do know, but have perhaps forgotten that’s important. And we need to tell them where they can meet Jesus; here in church, perhaps when we pray, even when we’re confused, scared and disappointed.
So, from my three eggs, have we got anything to share? Not a lot! The wooden egg isn’t edible by anyone.
The chocolate was wrapped around a raw egg, and that’s now all a bit messy and yukky, so we can’t share that either.
The pretty hard-boiled egg is edible…. but it’s not going to go very far is it.
Have you all seen the beautiful Easter Garden at the front? Take the children to the altar…
There are the crosses on the hill, where Jesus was crucified on Good Friday.
Can you see the tomb?
Did you notice that at the very beginning of the service after we lit the candles and I put the big Easter candle in it’s stand, I went and rolled the stone away on the tomb?
Take a close look. What’s nearby?
They will find a large golden egg. Get them to bring it to the front very carefully, and open it into a fresh glass bowl.
They will probably be excited, but ask them…
What they are meant to do with what’s inside, before we get too distracted?
SHARE IT! With the whole congregation….
Thanks to the ever-present strength and camera of Graham who keeps this clergy going. The pics are his.
As I was reminded at the end of the service, this was the last sermon of my curacy. On 9th April I will be Licensed as Associate Priest to the parishes of St. Mary’s Eversley and St. Barnabas Darby Green. My thanks to all those who have contributed to the journey thus far, and here’s to the next adventure…
Last Sunday was the first in Lent, and time for a change of focus towards the Easter story and all that scripture challenges us with as we explore who Jesus is and what he came to do.
Many of us, old and young, still enjoy an advent calendar, opening the windows that tell the Christmas story, creating a sense of anticipation as we move closer to the festivities, perhaps consuming chocolate along the way, or enjoying cute pictures of candles, angels, an ox or a donkey.
Lent is a similar season liturgically.
I’m wearing the same purple stole, though with different symbols on it (because it’s reversible).
We are preparing for a great Christian festival, which we celebrate with much joy, and more chocolate.
But we don’t have Lent calendars in the same way. It would, after all be difficult to fit 40 windows across a picture at a scale sensible enough to be propped on the average mantlepiece (I struggled enough making 5 windows on one for the children).
There’s also the idea of fasting, as Jesus was forced to do in the desert, so even if we’re not abstaining completely, chocolate’s out, until we get to Easter.
The only animals that feature are wild beasts of the desert like jackals and snakes; no cute animals here, even if there are angels.
The story that leads to Easter day isn’t so cheerful either: Jesus, the baby in the manger, God made man, dies.
The idea of Lent is not to generate the sense of excitement and anticipation of Advent, but to enable Jesus to prize or tear open windows into our hearts that let God in. Through scripture, prayer, study, silence, reflection and repentance, we ask God to open windows into our lives and faith that help us understand the significance of who Jesus is and what he did through the cross and resurrection, so that we can encounter God afresh, and understand that his kingdom has in fact come near.
For Lent, my husband Graham is doing something he’s run for a couple of years now; hosting an online Lent Book Club through his blog, Facebook and Twitter. Anyone can join in if they’re social media inclined. There are some people with whom he interacts who are long-standing personal friends; some we only know through their on-line presence; several who struggle to articulate their Christian faith; some who have been damaged by ill-health or by church communities who have excluded them; some who have been faithful committed Christians all their lives and are now house-bound, struggling to find fellowship; and some with family or work commitments that make them recognise they need to take time out with God. By sharing in the Lent Book Club, all are opening windows for each other that let God in.
This year they, we, are using Janet Morley’s book “The Heart’s Time”, a book that uses poetry – religious, semi-religious and otherwise – to open up our hearts to God’s Kingdom, to scripture, to the work of the Spirit. In her introduction she writes
“Poetry makes us slow down… explore hard subjects head-on… uses irony, doubt, humour and idiosyncratic perspectives [in a way that our church liturgy doesn’t]… [allows readers] to appreciate different layers of meaning…in which each reader finds their own interpretation,… [and] examines the familiar… in a way that becomes newly strange.”
The first poem she uses to introduce the relationship between Lent and poetry is “The Bright Field” by R.S. Thomas, the famous Welsh priest-poet. It describes the relationship between a brief glimpse of sunshine through clouds on a showery day, and our own faith journeys. If, as is so often the case, we forget our brief glimpses of God’s beauty, the hope, mercy, light and fire of his love, then we are ignoring, even dismissing, the promise of the Kingdom of God.
God, in our fast-paced, news-packed, headline-filled Gospel from Mark this morning, where each story could be packed into the now 280 characters of a Tweet, is tearing open the windows of the Kingdom of God, and letting the brief shafts of light highlight who Jesus is, and what he has come to do for us.
At his baptism, in the form of a dove as well as through the voice of God, the window opens to reveal Jesus as God’s son, whose obedience is deeply please to his adoring Father. Jesus is the Messiah of manger-fame, the anointed one, God on the move. But in that Sonship, in language used by Mark only in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion, in the imagery of death and resurrection found in baptism, Jesus is also shown to be our Saviour, the one who will die and rise again, to remake our relationship with God.
In the wilderness to which the Holy Spirit then propels Jesus, the window opens to focus our attention on the paradox that Jesus is both God and man, and therefore subject to the adversaries and adversities of life, signified in scripture though their personification as Satan. Perhaps we know only too well that any period of temptation and the pressure to do other than what God desires feels like a life-time, and the outcome is always uncertain. But for Mark, the outcome for Jesus is so obvious it doesn’t warrant a mention, because other windows, shafts of healing and hope, will show Jesus’ authority over the unclean spirits that oppress this world, and we who inhabit it.
As Jesus moves out into the villages of Galilee, he opens a third window on this new Kingdom by sensing that John-the-Baptist’s ministry is complete so that now his work, and the proclamation of its purpose, has just begun. The time to fulfil all that was promised by his birth and baptism has come; in him and through him, God made man, the Kingdom of God has come near.
What new windows of understandings to who God reveals himself to be in Jesus are we hoping to tear open this Lent?
Or do we need to stop and be observant long enough for God to break open a new encounter with him?
Are there brief glimpses of the promises of his Kingdom that we run the risk of missing if we don’t keep some sort of Lenten obedience, commitment or devotional practice?
Now is a good time to stop, find new windows on what God is wanting us to do in our lives, and not to walk past and promptly forget the light that shines in, but stop and reflect, take them seriously, and be changed by them. Un-shuttered windows may open on an amazing vista of hope that we hadn’t otherwise considered, or let in a fresh breeze that blows away the cobwebs of doubt or despair. The glass of a window-pane may help keep out the wild animals of a life-style or thought-world that is prone to savaging us if we don’t keep alert, or if the angle of light is just right, form a mirror in which we see ourselves as God sees us, flawed, and yet his special, precious adored child.
Because that is what lies at the heart of Jesus proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near to you, and me. We, like Jesus, are his beloved children, and with us he will be well pleased, if in Christ-like obedience we commit ourselves whole-heartedly to the work of tearing open new windows between our lives and God’s and allowing the Holy Spirit to flow through them shining the light of Jesus into the places that only he can reach. We are seeking to know God and his Kingdom better and better each day, so we need to be looking as hard as we would for a hidden treasure or a lost heirloom, and expect to be changed by what we discover.
There are many ways in which we can open the windows of God’s Kingdom into our lives this Lent, and doing a Lenten study, either privately, in a local community like a Life Group, or even in an online context, is one way. It doesn’t have to be via reading poetry either, there are many other study guides. At our Pancake Party at St. Peter’s and at the Ash Wednesday service, Rev’d Lerys gave out different sorts of guides (including #LiveLentdaily readings from the Archbishops) to help us engage creatively in opening windows on what God is trying to do with and for us in Jesus.
‘The Bright Field’ by RS Thomas
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price,
the one field that had
treasure in. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
and imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
This morning 11th Feb 2018, it was announced that the Bishop of Winchester has appointed me on a permanent basis as Associate Priest in the Benefice of Eversley and Darby Green. My Licensing Service will take place at St. Mary’s Church, Eversley on Monday 9th April, rather appropriately the Feast of the Annunciation.
My husband Graham and I will remain living in our home in Yateley, my ‘sending’ parish, and the place with which Eversley and Darby Green has strong historic, social and economic ties. On paper it doesn’t look like we’ll be living in the communities I will be serving; but because of the way they relate to each other, and how the congregations are spread among them, I will be. I will also remain a Non-Stipendiary Minister – the accepted terminology in this diocese is Self-Supporting Minister (SSM) but I’m not self-supporting as I don’t anything from anywhere; and my ministry is enabled through the love and generosity of my spouse!
I will be honest, for a long while I didn’t think this was what God wanted. But, it’s not the first time I’ve been wrong, or been very slow on the uptake – my call to ordination being a fine example. Whilst some significant moments in my ministry have included instantaneous recognition of God’s hand on my life, sometimes I have been too busy trying the doors that fit my dreams and/or the recommendations of those around me, or burying my head in the sand, to notice or accept the calling God is trying very hard to make obvious. In this case, as Graham and I sought to discern where God wanted me next, he opened an unexpected new job for Graham in his vocation as a teacher at the same time as the door that logically fitted it for me, closed in my face. Then when we looked at another exciting door for me, and found it very willing to open, with heavy hearts we realised it wasn’t compatible with where Graham’s new job was being affirmed and confirmed, so we had to firmly close the door I liked so much.
Cryptic, well it has to be really. If you’re interested and meet me face to face, I can explain a bit more. But it seems appropriate that such painful decisions are acknowledged in the process of discerning a new ministry, role and context. The struggles are important in themselves, but sometimes we can get lost in our struggles, and ignore the calling, the welcome, and the work, that is staring us in the face. Such is the case in this instance.
The warmth of the welcome last year when I was deployed to St. Mary’s Eversley, and the encouragements I have received over the intervening months both there and more recently at St. Barnabas Darby Green, have been a significant in me coming to realise where it was that God has called me to serve these churches. Developing a great working relationship with the new incumbent has helped too!
So, here’s to Lent, the time of preparation and penitence that suitably for me starts this week on Ash Wednesday and will lead through to Holy Week, after which I will take a week’s retreat in the run up to my Licensing for this new work. I’m looking forward to it, and to seeing where God is leading both these communities in the months and years to come.
So I started our service at St. Mary’s Eversley this week by holding a line-out with the kids, to introduce the idea of conflict and that we’re in a spiritual battle. Here’s the sermon that went with that idea… there may be a slight theme to my reflections at present 😉
Sadly I don’t think it is simply the reference to a red dragon in this morning’s passage from Revelation that reminded me of the Welsh flag… and yes I realise that the red dragon of the Welsh flag doesn’t have seven heads! I fear it is more a rather fanatical devotion to watching the 6 Nations rugby tournament that starts next week, and the knowledge that Wales come to ‘Fortress Twickenham’ in a fortnight’s time.
In our passage from Revelation this morning, we have in prophetic vision, the titanic battle between Jesus (the baby) and the forces that seek to overpower God’s plan for the world (the seven-headed red dragon), with the faithful of a new Israel as a shocked and traumatised participant (the woman in need of God’s protection because of what she’s been involved in).
The babe is born into the world with the intention on God’s part of bringing the nations into line, to rule them with a rod of iron (a reference to Psalm 2:7-9)… like a good referee and his whistle in a rugby match; think Nigel Owens if you have half a clue what I’m talking about 😉 It’s a long match – it’s been going for a couple of millennia and it’s not over yet, for Revelation is a vision of Jesus’ second coming into the world, when he will finally complete the work of God’s new kingdom when heaven and earth are drawn together as one.
In echoes of Herod’s attempt to kill the infant King of the Jews in Matthew 2 which are thwarted by God’s intervention into the journey’s of both the Magi and the Holy Family, here the danger posed by the forces opposing God personified in the dragon are circumvented by the salvation story being compressed into a single moment, birth, death and resurrection, happening in the same instant as the babe’s ascension to God’s throne.
The woman is not a re-incarnation of Mary; the visions of Revelation are way more multi-layered than that simple analogy. More; she is both Eve, the original mother of all human life who’s “seed would one day crush the serpents head, according to Genesis 3:15, and she is daughter Israel, the bride of YHWH, the personification of both the faithful Israel who struggled to remain a holy nation, and ultimately the redefined Israel, Jew and Gentile alike brought together in the church, the bride of Christ, the fellowship of those who have responded with hope to Jesus authority in his first encounter with God’s creation. It is she, us indeed, that have been left to go through the painful birth-pangs and battle of bringing about the completion of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus, in his lifetime, right from the first days of his ministry, understood the nature of the conflict that all those who battle on his behalf have to deal with. He witnessed it himself, and he acted with authority on our behalf, and he still does, breaking down the forces that wreak havoc in individuals, communities, and continents through mental illness, addiction, abuse of various kinds, and racial and religious hatred. Sometimes it is those locked into those frightening situations who are most aware of when it is Jesus who is taking the strain, pushing back the powers of darkness, and helping them break free; those of us on the outside are perhaps blind to the significance of what is said and done.
Which was oh so true in Capernaum’s synagogue in our Gospel this morning. Yes, the language is medically outdated, but the imbalance of power between any illness and our human weakness, between one spiritual realm and another, is not. Those who witnessed this young man take an unusual tone of authority all of his own, without direct reference to scripture or the wisdom of his elders as the scribes did, did not understand from where that authority came. That is why they did not recognise the incongruity that lay in this Jesus from Nazareth being hailed as the Holy One of God by the very powers that Jesus, fresh from wilderness, already knew were ranged against him.
It is good that in this typically brief account from Mark’s Gospel, we see the importance of those with what we would now describe as mental health issues being welcomed into the worship, prayer, and teaching of a community of faith, because it is there, or should I say here, where the possibility of encounter with Jesus is hopefully heightened, through which they might find healing and freedom.
The church should be a safe place for those who need Jesus’ help. Whether gathered in one place like this morning, or flung out like stars around our communities, battered by the tail of the dragon that is heartbreak, illness and despair, we too need to know we have God’s power and protection by the very fact of being the church. As the people of God we have one another to turn to for encouragement, strength and wisdom. More importantly we have the person of Jesus quietly sat there with us in every situation, listening to the powers of darkness speak. With his gentle authority as the Messiah, he offers us the understanding that can challenge those who use the name of Jesus inappropriately, who try to manipulate situations to undermine his credibility, and can help counteract with modern medicine, the force that ill-health of any sort has to over-power us.
The vision of Revelation is yet to be fulfilled. In the now-and-not-yet of God’s work of re-creation, Jesus has not yet returned to complete God’s task. The woman that represents us, God’s faithful worshippers, is still in child-birth, and thus we still have a very intense battle on our hands, faced as we are with powers who in all their multi-headed awfulness, don’t want the authority of Jesus to be revealed in it’s fullness. This is no rugby match, no game, but we do have a referee with God’s full authority; Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God, who was,… and is,… and is to come. Amen.
With thanks to the Tom Wright and his Revelation for Everyone, as well as other commentaries, which helped me to unpack the Epistle enough in this sermon for several people to comment that they actually understood it as a result!
For the liturgically interested, we’ve delayed Candlemas to next week, so we can celebrate it in our All Age service.
I had the joy last weekend of leading Basingstoke District Bellringers Service, that partly came about because they were having their annual gathering at St. Mary’s Eversley, and partly because I’ve returned to bell-ringing a bit with the encouragement of the local team, having not rung more than a couple of times since I turned twenty! That story, and my reflections on it in connection with Romans 12:1-11, formed a part of my short talk at the service. I also used Malcolm Guite’s sonnet ‘New Year’s Day: Church Bells’, which many at the service hadn’t heard of. My thanks to Malcolm’s poetic skills, and hopefully he will find new bell-minded fans of his poetry!
Returning sporadically to bell-ringing in the few months I’ve been here in Eversley, I have been reminded of two things in particular.
Firstly, yes, bell-ringing really is like riding a bike; you never completely forget how to do it. My first evening last autumn I was astounded to discover (after a little tail and sally work) that I could still ring rounds without a minder. The second evening, towards Christmas I was back change ringing, and to my utter surprise this week, I managed Plain Hunt… the technical limit of my teenage endeavours in the New Forest, over 30 years ago!
Secondly, like riding a bike, one of the significant skills bell-ringing requires is balance. OK, so it’s not quite the same as balancing on two wheels at speed round obstacles with cars coming past, but balance none the less.
There’s the balance of the bell, read through the feel of the rope, something that’s slightly different for each bell because of its weight and the way it’s been hung.
There’s also the balance of the way you stand in relation to the fall of the rope, its position in relation to the rest of the peal, and the way you change your stance depending on whether you hunting down to the back, or up to lead at the front… or at least that’s how it felt on Wednesday!
Then there’s a sense of balance in what happens in the methods that are being rung. Every bell and its ringer has an equal part to play, moving to front and back, sharing the load of leading and following, functioning together as the body of the peal.
And there’s the balance between the activity of the mind, and the activity of the body, and the levels of concentration needed to function in both areas in response to what is required, and going on around you. There is a big commitment of mental and physical energy in ringing – it really is a full workout!
Which, is why I chose the reading from Romans for this afternoon. Hopefully you don’t think this novice is too technically in-accurate or being inappropriate with her analogies.
The Christian life is as much a full work out of body and mind as bell-ringing is. If we only help with a food bank or night shelter, visit the elderly and housebound, teach children, and do our everyday employment with our body and part of our mind, without engaging our understanding to bring that together with our understanding of God and our faith in Jesus, then we’re not being a Christian to the best of our ability.
Being a Christian should be a balanced whole life activity, just as bell-ringing is, especially for the many of you who ring in multiple towers each week. Practice is one thing, we need it to become proficient, but if we practice in isolation from ringing for services, including weddings, funerals, Remembrance and other occasions, then we’re not making that spiritual connection between ringing and what God is ministering to others through us: ministries of welcome, of joy and celebration, of mourning, of commemoration and creating history. Bells help people with all those things, ringing the story of our faith and drawing us into community with others, and mustn’t operate in isolation from the worship and mission of the church.
God wants his church to draw people into worship, to understand what it means to know Jesus, and at its best bells and bell-ringing is part of that. If we as bell-ringers are fulfilling our calling to the Christian life effectively, making it part of our spiritual act of worship, then we are enabling the whole body of the church to have more impact, and to be more visible as the body of Christ. If we have such a balanced understanding of and approach to our bell-ringing and to the rest of our lives, then both our faith and our bell-ringing will have integrity, and play their full part in the sincerity with which we love God, love our communities, and love of each other.