Reflections on dew drops and Psalm 19

Psalm 19 (Matthew 21:33-end) 17th after Trinity at St. Mary’s Eversley

It’s been a while since I posted a sermon, but I promised the photographer whose image inspired this weeks 8am reflection that I’d make it available to her, and (for a variety of reasons) this is the simplest way to do so. So…

As the psalmist puts it:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

This week, Paula Southern (someone who in better times visits our bell tower regularly from Crondall to ring), shared a photo on Facebook of dewdrops hanging from a slender spider web, itself suspended across the loop of an iron bird-feeder. Against the morning light the ephemeral jewels of the dew glinted, to be gone again as the sun ran on across the heavens. It captured a moment in someone’s early morning routine that through social media brought joy and beauty to those who couldn’t get up that early, or don’t have those things close at hand in their gardens, or perhaps can’t even get out at all.

Psalm 19 is up there in the list of my favourite Psalms, along with Psalm 8 and Psalm 148 – little jewels in themselves. They celebrate and reflect on the beauty and wonders of God’s creation, the heavens not just in the stars at night but in glorious sunrises and sunsets, and the formation of clouds scudding across the sky. Beauty is something that is not simply ‘in the eye of the beholder’ but often beyond the words of the beholder too, try as we and other poets might. Paradoxically the psalmist points out that the beauty of the heavens and the world around us pours out its own song, sound and words unto the ends of the world itself, and I don’t think the psalmist is referring to the Buzzard’s cry or the Robin’s song that we are so used to when we come to worship here.

Philosophically speaking, this captures the fact that in our humanity we are actually created by God to experience beauty instinctively, and reminds us of the qualities that make something beautiful. As Bishop Christopher Herbert has described it, beauty is “profoundly good in and of itself… points beyond itself to something which is greater… reminds us of our place in the order of things… and reminds us of our relatedness to the world and to other people.”

If we go back to this image of water droplets on a spider’s web… for me at least, those jewelled droplets that Paula photographed were a reminder of the wonders of God’s creation; they brought joy, in and of themselves. But they also pointed toward something greater; to the fact that something so small is created by one of the basic elements of that creation – water – held in tension; and that like them, we need to allow the glory of God to shine on our ephemeral lives. These, our lives, often exist like water held by the tension of the many issues going on around us, and as we are enabled to let the Son of God shines through us, so people can see the beauty, perhaps even a glimpse of the glory of God.

The psalmist goes on to talk about the law, the commandments, and the statues of the Lord, as being pure, bringing joy and renewal to those who in keeping them serve God. Of course in the New Testament, we see that those statutes have been devalued, and a more perfect and better hope is made available to us, by which we draw near to God in Jesus Christ (to paraphrase Hebrews 7:18-19) the true light of the world.

This morning I believe God is reminding us of own ephemeral nature in the context of his creation, but at the same time of the value and purpose of our lives within that. God holds our individual transient humanity, and loves us as we are through Christ who we receive by faith in Holy Eucharist – and that can be the hardest of all things to remember in times of difficulty and hardship, isolation or overwork. But then we’re also linked by that thread of faith, like a sticky cobweb, to the people and places where he wants the love of Jesus to shine, not just on us but through us, to create beauty for others to behold.

We should not presume, as the psalmist strongly hints, to think of ourselves as either unworthy of the place God has made for us in his creation, or as in control of it as to abuse the position we have been entrusted with, at will. We need to hold the right tension between our lifestyles and the decisions we take in the way we govern our lives, and the light of Jesus’ commandment to love him first, and our neighbour, as ourselves.

As we make our confession in a moment, declaring before God our ‘secret faults’ as the psalmist puts it, may we desire more than anything else to make ourselves right with God, so that by whatever thread we are currently hanging, and however transient our lives from this moment, we may be seen as those who shine the beauty of God’s glory into those who encounter us.

Reconciliation and Celebration – Genesis 42v1-13 and Luke 11v1-4

Eucharistic table after alternative worship celebration at Oxford Ministry Course Summer School 2013
Eucharistic table after alternative worship celebration at Oxford Ministry Course Summer School 2013

This morning I preached at our first Summer Sunday combined service, to those of St. Peter’s Yateley who hadn’t yet left for New Wine, or otherwise gone on holiday. It forms the last of a sequence of sermons on the story of Jacob and Joseph, and brings together thoughts about reconciliation and Eucharist.

I wonder how many of us feel trapped in some way by the past?

We’re doing our best to work through the challenges life throws at us, when some circumstance comes along and reminds us of our own past mistakes, our folly, or of the unexpected consequences of some innocuous comment we made a long time ago. Many of us live with these occasional and uncomfortable reminders of broken relationships; we set them aside and get on with life, but unless we can forge circumstances whereby a meeting takes place, reconciliation is impossible. Graham and I know only too well in our family how painful that can be; its like a kind of bereavement – every so often something happens to remind you how painful it is.

For Jacob’s family in today’s Old Testament reading, drought and hunger might be their most pressing concern, but they still live with the consequences of their past actions, now twenty years behind them.

Jacob, has a paranoid fear of losing the second son of his beloved wife Rachel, given that their older child Joseph has been, supposedly, lost to the ravages of wild animals. Benjamin must, at almost all costs, be protected from danger, even at the cost of remaining at home in famine conditions. Jacob still has his favourites!

That of course must remind Benjamin’s older brothers, Leah’s sons, of their own complicity in the so called death of Joseph, and the lies they have woven to hide the truth. Something they continue to have to cover for when faced with the accusation of spying by Pharaoh’s awe inspiring Grand Vizier! When they declare that “one brother is no more” the English translation hides a whole packet of intense emotions that are suggested at in the Hebrew!

I guess the face paint worn by Egypt’s ruling elite must have hidden Joseph’s emotions at this first meeting: not only does he remember his dreams and their role in bringing him on a painful journey to his current exalted position, but he also remembers the part played by his older brothers, now prostrate before him!

If we read back in Genesis 41:51 we find Joseph called his first-born Manasseh, as an acknowledgement that it was because “God had made him forget his trouble and his Fathers’ house”, which actually only goes to show that really the contrary was true! He hadn’t forgotten at all! The naming of his second son, Ephraim, suggests rather, that the real truth was he’d simply learned to live with different blessings in the land of his suffering.

In his book on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, Desmond Tutu talks about different types of “truth” people experience:

There is something called forensic, or factual, truth. This, if we read on through the conclusion of this fascinating story of Jacob’s family, is the type of truth that tells Joseph’s older brothers that somehow the silver they thought they had paid the Pharoah’s Vizier for their first shipment of grain, has been mysteriously returned to their possession. They do not understand why, or how, but the forensic truth is that the silver is there in their sacks in Genesis 42 v28; which only adds to the discomfort at having to leave Simeon behind as hostage against their eventual return with young Benjamin.

It was a different type of truth, a social truth, that finally enabled the political powers of South Africa to bring about the end of apartheid between 1990 and 1994, giving all people equal rights to democratic process and freedom of speech, regardless of colour or race. I guess the social truth in this Genesis story, is the starvation that drives migration and brings together different cultures, the Hebrew and the Egyptian. We see so much such economic migration today, and the social changes and challenges it brings, that it shouldn’t be too hard for us to recognise!

But it is personal truth, what Desmond Tutu writes of as the truth of wounded memories, which is being most prominently featured in these closing chapters of Genesis, that I do encourage you to read as we conclude this series of sermons today. Personal truth, says that when one person is encouraged or allowed to speak their memories, in the context of being heard and respected by those intimately involved in them, healing can be found. Personal truth was what formed the basis of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and it followed from the social truth of equality. The reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers’ starts with Joseph’s discovery that they are repentant for their actions of twenty years previously.

You see, if we read through Genesis 42 v21-23, we see that Joseph comes to understand that they see their current trouble as relating to their past treatment of him, a form of confession that brings to light the information that the eldest, Reuben, spoke up for him at the time. Perhaps that is why it is in fact Simeon, Leahs’ second son, and not Reuben, who becomes Josephs’ hostage.

Some of you may have heard me talk before about the African theology of “ubuntu”. It may have become a word that describes a computer system, but even that derives from the theology popularised by Desmond Tutu, that a person is a person, through other people. To live with broken relationships, with other people, or with God, is a kind of death because we are created by God to be in relationship, healthy relationship, with other people. Ubuntu says that supporters of apartheid were as much victims of the vicious system they implemented, as the murdered, widowed, beaten and ostracised of the townships.

By being confronted by a situation where they were reminded of, and forced to acknowledge, the arguments and dehumanising behaviour they had exhibited towards Joseph in the past, the older brothers’ started the process of gaining Joseph’s forgiveness. It is personal truth, Reuben’s outburst of honesty, that sparks Joseph’s tears in Genesis 42 v22. And, if we read on into Chapter 44, on their second visit to Egypt, this time with Benjamin, it is the proof of repentance for their past actions exhibited in their honesty and truth telling under the pressure of new situations in which they feel totally out of control, that enables Joseph to finally complete his own generous acts of reconciliation by finally making himself known to them, thus enabling his reunion with Jacob in Genesis 46 v29. In the long run, it brings the family together in Egypt where they can prosper and grow in number and in their understanding of themselves as the people of God.

Here in the story of Joseph and his brothers being reconciled, we see the same as Jesus teaches us in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus is teaching us, his disciples, that the starting point for our prayers and mission as his people, is to be reconciled to one another. The familiar words of what we know as the Lord’s Prayer includes the practice of forgiveness, a daily awareness of our ongoing need for forgiveness by God for those times we stuff up, that is compromised if there is not a corresponding practice of forgiveness on our own part. It is a teaching of Jesus that we read elsewhere, for example in the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18 v23-35, and in Luke 6 v37 where it says “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” The biggest challenge of all is that, throughout his ministry, and most obviously in his journey to and in his words from the cross “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), that Jesus also gives us a living example of what it means to forgive those who exclude, condemn, and torture, without understanding the personal truth of what they are doing wrong, making any confession or seeking his or anyone else’s, forgiveness.

Admitting fault, confessing wrong thoughts and actions before others, and before God, is not about earning forgiveness, or about putting the right coin in God’s vending machine to trigger forgiveness, but a response to God’s sacrificial abundant love in Christ. Offering forgiveness to those who speak their own personal truths honestly, and with an integrity to their actions, is a response to both God and to such openness. Complete reconciliation should be a celebration of the basic idea that God is over-flowing with his own self-giving love, and has made us to have Ubuntu, to be in right relationship with each other.

Joseph’s reaction to being reunited with his younger brother in Genesis 43 v29-34, is a celebration meal which he serves himself with great generosity, and at which he makes his final reconciliation with his older brothers. What we call Holy Communion, which we will share later in this service, is something that celebrates our God given freedom of relationship with him, and with each other. It is a moment of Eucharist, which means to “give thanks”, the ultimate celebration meal that should grow out of willingness to confess before God the deep personal truths of our lives, our desire for forgiveness, our ability to forgive and the quest for right relationship, for ubuntu, with each other and with God.

Under the gaze of God: Confession for Pentecost – Acts 2:1-12

Altar Frontal - Winchester Cathedral

We normally have an awesome open-air service for Pentecost out in the blazing sunshine. This year we had what I’m told was an awesome service… inside!

It fell to me to lead this year, with a Reader colleague preaching using the ideas of fire, wind and water. Part of his focus for fire was as a purifyer, so it seemed obvious to follow into a time of confession after this part of his talk.

Yet, when I came to peruse the options of Common Worship I found, that even with the help of James Ogley (a fellow member of the Twurch Of England also from my Diocese) I couldn’t find anything from Common Worship Times and Seasons (starting p483), or New Patterns for Worship, that I felt was suitable for the service (All Age format), and linked with what the reading and talk ideas suggested.

I love the creative act of putting together liturgy from different resources, but it has to be just right, and if I can’t find what I think will help people meet with God, I tend to write it myself! This may or may not get me drummed out of the Church of England 🙂

So here’s the prayer of confession I came up with. It came with a sort of free-form introduction. Feel free to use it, or comment, or point me in the direction of something else or authorised!

Do you ever get the feeling your being watched?
Someone who’s looking at you like they know what you’ve done, what you’re thinking?

Well God does… I sure that as the disciples tried not to run away and hide, but waited and prayed in Jerusalem, God was watching them, willing them to be strong and faithful to Jesus’ command to ‘wait for the gift my Father promised’.

God knows how faithful to him we are; as we feel his gaze we’ll know ourselves as he sees us, and know where we fall short.

Dear God,

We feel your loving gaze upon us,
and know our fears, our doubts and our lack of faith.
As we notice the trust that others have placed in your promises,
we recognise our own lack of trust in your faithfulness to us.
As we see and hear your word proclaimed for all to hear,
we remember the times when we have not told your story.

We are not just sorry,
but ask that you might purify us,
so that we might be found whole in your presence.

But God’s gaze is not destructive, he wants to leave us whole, and renewed in our relationship with him so that we can be recognised in the world as people who love him.

He pours out his love over us so that only what is wrong is burnt away through his forgiveness, to leave us whole.

(I concluded with Absolution B77 from New Patterns For Worship)