Reflection on Mary of Magdala (John 20)

Easter garden at St. Mary's Old Basing and Lychpit 2015
Easter garden at St. Mary’s Old Basing and Lychpit 2015 – interestingly our model of Mary of Magdala has her in a blue robe, not a red one.

Presiding in celebration of a Saint for the first time today, so needed to come up with some reflections on St. Mary Magdalene:

Mary of Magdala, Mary Magdalene.

The woman we remember today has had so much imposed upon her since she was first captured for posterity in the pages of scripture that it is difficult to untangle the things that we really know of her, from the the things that have been assumed, conflated with others; impressions and fables captured in art and in literature, both learned and less so. I make no pretence to be doing anything other than adding to the layers of uses to which her character, her actions and her faith have been put, but I do so because her story is one that brings us within touching distance of Jesus, a fact that I think lies at the heart of her universal appeal to both the Christian and secular imagination down the centuries. 

We can be pretty sure that this Mary was an independent woman from the lakeside town of Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee. Why independent? Well because in scripture she takes her name from the place, rather than from her nearest male relative (Hebblethwaite, p116-7) as is otherwise the case in the Gospel’s and context of the time. The myth of her sinful past may well rest on the absence of these reassuring family ties, and, the layer of assumption that her closest relationship with a man appears to have been with Jesus (Hebblethwaite, p116-7), has no doubt contributed to more romantic notions than scripture actually provides evidence for.

We can be pretty sure that despite the red dress of so many artistic impressions of this woman, Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. Too long has her story been conflated with those of the sinner who touches Jesus in Luke 7:39 (who was not necessarily a woman of easy virtue herself, if our modern understanding of language is accurate), and Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus in John 12 whose character has likewise been prostituted (Hebblethwaite, p119).

Scripture does testify, more than once, to the fact that Mary of Magdala had mental health issues when she first encountered Jesus, for her seven demons are referred to in Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9 (Hebblethwaite, p120). The number seven probably only suggests the severity of her illness, not its nature and cause, which have themselves become a rich source for the imagination of more modern writers and theologians, wanting to encourage a more positive pastoral attitude to mental health care through the example of Jesus’ ministry to her. And yet scripture gives us no detail of this healing encounter with our Lord, perhaps because as some have suggested it took place over the months and years of their friendship during Jesus’ travels, rather than in one single, miraculous encounter (Hebblethwaite, p120).

Our chief evidence for the action, character and ministry of Mary Magdalene is in the scripture that forms our Gospel on this her Feast Day. Here, is a woman who (possibly with others) wanted to give the body of the crucified teacher the reverence it was due, to fill the void which being witness to his murder had created in her life. But the emptiness she initially encounters is even greater than anticipated, as she reaches a tomb devoid of the healing (John 20:1) that a graveside watch can bring.

As was the case at the crucifixion, once the initial encounter with the confusion of Christ’s resurrection is made, the men who perhaps she hoped might support her in their shared perplexity, vanish. So she weeps alone with a grief that soaks through the layers of her life as well as her clothes. It has been said that ‘maybe you can only see angels through tears’ (Wright, p146) and I know that’s been true for me: Mary seems suddenly devoid of hope because all she thought she understood has been taken away, but the presence of angels creates the questioning that cuts through her desolation.

Possibly the most consistent point of reflection through all the layers of Magdalene myths is the scriptural evidence that it is not only angels she sees, but the risen Lord himself whom she finally encounters and recognises by the use of her name: Mary….. As she reaches out to cling to the one that brought her healing, she comes up against another stage in that very process, one that does not rebuff, but invites her to re-enter the independent life with which she first encountered Jesus, but now without the luggage of illness with which she had previously been encumbered. As the Apostle to the Apostles (Wright, p147), sent to share the good news of the reality of the resurrected Christ with those who had run too soon to witness it themselves, Mary of Magdala finally receives the freedom (inspired by Mann, p55) that comes with true healing and renewed purpose.

I wonder how much the layers of people’s suppositions about our histories and our characters weigh upon our lives? People think they know something about us when they glimpse a few simple facts that might include our marital status (past or present), a bereavement or an illness.

Likewise, we may grudgingly recognise that in the light of the snapshots we see of others’ lives week by week, whether in their homes, the shops or in the national headlines, we impose our own layers of conjecture as to how they understand themselves, their spiritual journeys and their encounters with God.

Like Mary Magdalene, what we need to encounter for ourselves is not only the healing that comes from being a follower of Christ – happy to stay on the road with him week by week and willing to stand at the cross of his suffering with others – but also to encounter the emptiness of those places and relationships where initially he seems absent. We have to trust Jesus to reveal himself to others, not only in those places where we except him, like here in a much-beloved church, but in the places where perhaps we have given up looking for him.

On finding the place where they expected to find Jesus, many have run away, because they were looking for someone who had died. The freedom of the resurrection, the hope that Mary of Magdala was the first understand, was that sometimes it is only when we stop and sit with weeping with our broken expectations, that we encounter the living Christ. Only in that encounter, wherever or in whoever it is formed, will we know not only freedom, but the purpose to which Jesus is sending us back into the world in which he calls us to live day by day.

 

The books I’ve used as resources and inspiration are Rachel Mann’s “The Risen Dust – Poems and stories of passion and resurrection”, Margaret Hebblethwaite’s “Six New Gospels – New Testament Women Tell Their Stories” and Tom Wright’s “John for Everyone – Part 2”

Pavane for the Resurrected Lord – on my ordination as Priest

Newly minted priest (almost) dancing down the aisle of Winchester Cathedral, 4th July 2015
Newly minted priest (almost) dancing down the aisle of Winchester Cathedral, 4th July 2015

I was Priested at Winchester Cathedral on 4th July, and celebrated the Eucharist for the first time on Sunday 12th July. Momentous events in my life (so much has been working up to this point), and it transpires in the lives of some of those whom I serve. As the dust settles, it is time to take stock of a little of what has been said, done and started.

Last Saturday, the day of my priesting, started with a deep sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and a ‘picture’ before we’d eaten breakfast! The night before +Tim had charged us to ‘yearn to burn’ with the Holy Spirit, referencing 1 Peter 1:13-16 and wanting us to imagine our finger tips burning. Yet as I sat there that morning, the image that came to me was of the coals in my father’s grate, flameless but glowing red hot, bringing far more heat to any room and for far longer, than the transient flames of kindling and wood. Here was the heat of the Holy Spirit I seek from God in my ministry as a priest – something that will transmit the burning love of God for and to those I seek to serve.

That image, and the attendant sense of peace stayed with me throughout a day that reminded me both of the fulfillment of my calling coming to pass, and my own inadequacy in fulfilling it – it will be nothing without God, and without the love that knits together in Christ as we grow to maturity. It was a privilege to read from Ephesians 4:7-16 at the service and voice this, and to be surrounded by so many very special people who have had key parts to play in my own journey of faith – some reading this will know, I hope that I am talking about them!

For a variety of reasons, not least the ordination and arrival of a new Deacon the next day to the parish in which I serve, it was to be a week before I presided for the first time at our weekly Sung Eucharist. Admittedly an incredibly nerve-racking occasion, I had been blessed by the gracious offer by my training incumbent of the opportunity to have a guest preach, and the willingness of a dear friend to fulfill that task, despite the Old Testament reference to David dancing, and the Gospel reading being that of the beheading of John the Baptist (2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Mark 6: 14-29)!

Dom Andrew, talked of our need, and my calling, to dance before the Lord, through the liturgical year in what he poetically described as a “Pavane for the Resurrected Lord”. It is the rituals that I have come to St. Mary’s to learn the steps of, and it is the richness of the liturgical year, the detail of which has been somewhat lost in previous churches in which I’ve worshipped and served, that I am coming to prize highly. It is a sermon I probably ought to read every time I am to preside at Eucharist, the sacrament which for so many is so incredibly important that I must learn the ‘steps’, both traditional and contemporary, often ritualised and sometimes something more raw, which reveal Christ to those present;

“…for it will reconcile to him all the broken and vulnerable children of God present in this place, enabling us to join together once more in the steps of the round dance of our love for him.”

A Triquetra (the symbol of the Holy Trinity) by whose power we live in the circle of life and love in this world.
A Triquetra (the symbol of the Holy Trinity) by whose power we live in the circle of life and love in this world.

The full text of Dom Andrew’s sermon can be viewed here on our parish website.

It transpired that my first, slightly flat (musically), slightly faltering, steps in the Eucharist dance were to be a special moment linking my mother, a ‘fighter’ for the ordination of women long-since gone to our Lord, to another mother, one who has helped nurture me through my diaconal year, and who until that moment, had never received Eucharist where a woman presided. Twenty and more years on from all that my mother was involved with locally, it is easy to forget that for some, this remains an incredible milestone.

There are a host of other special images of the day in my mind, not least the gift of a home communion set from the parish, and the most wonderful glass-work created by The Glass Maidens of the parish with the help of my husband and son. Again there were many friends that had come from a variety of churches to which I am linked, including Twitter! But, I think for now the important thing is to concentrate on learning and perfecting the steps of the dance that our Resurrected Lord wants to teach us all; the dance of love.

Liturgical “bake” off

Our Ascension Day balloons that were released from the top of St. Mary's tower during our Ascension Day acclamations.
Our Ascension Day balloons that were released from the top of St. Mary’s tower during our Ascension Day acclamations.

This morning we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord with Eucharist and balloons… but no bacon.

Somehow I had got it into my head (goodness knows how) that there would be bacon butties after the service. There weren’t. Though there were perfectly lovely croissants, with butter and jam, and plenty of tea and coffee. Our hard-working sacristan had got up ridiculously early to prepare this, and so I’m selfish and cold-hearted even to mention a word of criticism.

But, I had wanted bacon, and felt let down. So following the modern trend, I bemoaned the lack of bacon to my friends on Facebook, aware as I was, that bacon is hardly suited to any festival remotely rooted in the Jewish tradition. Yet, I humbly submit that since the Ascension was part of the new covenant, and an element of the journey towards the blessing of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and because of Peter’s experience of being told by God that “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15), bacon is a perfectly acceptable Christian festival food.

As the morning wore on my mood was lightened by various suggestions as to what food best celebrates which Festival and Feast of the liturgical calendar, and a dear neighbouring clergy friend suggested the idea of a “liturgical bake off” – something which St. Mary’s enthusiasm for cake making would be most suited to hosting.

So, working through the church year, and using the suggestions so far gleaned from tradition, Facebook friends (to whom credit and thanks) and the warped minds of my family, I offer the following as a starter, to which you are welcome to add suggestions.

Advent Sunday – Date cake

Christmas – Christmas cake (obviously), Angel Cake

EpiphanyStargazy pie, a box of Terry’s ‘All Gold’

Candlemas (Presentation of Christ) – Pigeon Pie

Baptism of Christ – water biscuits

Temptation of Jesus – Apple crumble (because it’s a des’ert), Rock buns (also known as rock cakes)

Conversion of St. PaulRocky Road

Ash WednesdayCreme brulee

TransfigurationBattenberg (berg = mountain)

Annunciation of our Lord to the BVM – Angel Cake (again), Angel Delight

Mothering Sunday/Laetare SundaySimnel Cake

Maundy ThursdayPenny buns or the edible fungus Boletus edulis (Penny Bun)

Good Friday – Hot Cross Buns

Easter Day –  The perfect souffle, (oh, and chocolate eggs, apparently)

Ascension Day – meringues (because a ‘cloud’ hid him from their sight), not bacon it seems, and not pitta bread (because it hasn’t risen), Sc’one

Pentecost – BBQ, carrot cupcakes with little orange marzian carrots/flames, flame grilled… (whatever you fancy really)

Trinity Sunday – Three fruit marmalade, Tri-fle

Harvest – Pumpkin pie, plaited loaf

All Souls – choux pastrie (think ‘soles’), lemon sole

All Saints – iced ring doughnuts (haloes)

Christ the King – Coronation chicken, Royal jelly

What’s bothering you? John 12:20-33 (Passiontide)

Jesus was troubled.

Right down in the depths of his soul, the humanity of Jesus was troubled.

Mary’s son.
The friend, the brother, the healer, the preacher, the teacher, the comforter;
all that Jesus was – even as Son of God – shrank from the suffering that at this moment in his ministry, suddenly became very, very, real; the climax of all he was on earth to do, that would take his all, his very life.

Does that bother us?

Does it bother us that the divine one got nervous about what he knew was coming; the rigged trial, the torture, the ridicule, the crucifixion – death itself? Or, is it somehow reassuring, to face those grim moments in life when we have to make decisions that are going to cause us hassle, cost us money, lifestyle, time, peace of mind, possibly even make us look like fools for sticking to our Christian principles – is it reassuring that Jesus too was troubled by the price he had to pay for who he was, and who WE are, with HIS life?

Or again, does it make us wonder, what was it that really bothered Jesus at that moment when a bunch of God-fearing Greeks, sought him out for an interview, and his disciples got all uncertain about whether they should let them near him or not?

I wonder what it was that really bothered Jesus?

It may have been the very fact that these God-fearing Greeks were seeking him out at all, signifying that the time was right for him to redeem the whole world, not just his own people, whose leaders would condemn him, lift him up from the earth, crucify him. He had “come unto his own, and his own had received him not”. Now, it was only through being nailed up that those that sought him out – whether Greek or indeed Jew – would not just see, but really encounter and recognise the truth, the fullness, the glory, of who Jesus was.

It may be that what bothered Jesus was the uncertainty with which the disciples, the people who he had taught, led, corrected and explained stuff to for three long years, welcomed the Greeks. Had they still not got it, even now, when the time for all to be completed was so close at hand; when they would need all the teaching and resources of faith in who he was to understand the importance of the terrifying, distressing, amazing, unbelievable events that they were about to witness?! If THEY still didn’t get that, what chance had the rest of the world got of understanding and living out his message of unconditional love for all people, regardless of their ethnicity?!

It could be that what bothered Jesus was whether anyone would take his sacrifice, and the glory that gave to God, seriously enough to follow in his footsteps? Would anyone ever again give God the sort of sovereignty in their lives that he was about to, so that his sacrifice would not be in vain? He was going to be physically broken on the cross, and remade in obedience to his Father’s will, but he may have doubted that anyone who followed him would allow themselves to become as broken, and as remade, for others in God’s name.

It may be, that whilst he’d lived and taught that God’s Kingdom had come with abundant grace and love, he was bothered that those who did follow him hadn’t really understood that this new covenant relationship with God came as a judgement on a human society that was capable of thinking so much of itself that it rebelled against it’s creator to the extent that it could kill him, him who gave them life. Whilst the tyranny of evil WOULD be broken on the cross, Jesus knew that until he comes again, the self-delusion of the power-hungry would still be a force to be reckoned with, against which God would need to strengthen us in the spiritual realms.

Yes, it was probably all those things that troubled and bothered Jesus as he prepared for his death, alongside the very human reaction of shrinking from the physical agony of torture and crucifixion; but do those things bother us today?

Does it bother us, that there are those who come looking for Jesus, but don’t really get to see him for who he really is? Who need perhaps a little encouragement to pray and seek God among the pain life has dealt them; who are concerned that church is just for people with too much time on their hands; or think that faith in Jesus is just some spiritual crutch they don’t need to motivate them to help others? Do we know people, who with a little encouragement from OUR friends, WE can be brave enough to draw into the presence of Jesus this Holy Week?

Does it bother us, that whilst Jesus lived and died a message of unconditional love, we’re still enveloped in a world that at best stifles love for our neighbours, and at worst seeks to cut them off from riches not just of the world’s resources, but from our own God-given capacity for love? God’s desire for reconciliation with and among all people, lifted his son up on the cross. So will we respond not just by reaching out to those we see and know with a helping hand, but by making sure that EVERY cross we might be asked to make in the next few weeks fulfils that same message of love and reconciliation?

Perhaps it bother us, that whilst we’re eager to encounter the risen, glorified Christ of Easter morning, actually we still feel like slightly trampled grains of wheat who haven’t yet found the purposeful growth that comes with putting down strong roots into the soil of following Jesus through Holy Week? How much would it cost us in time and effort to be open to Jesus’ presence this Passiontide?

And finally, does it bother us that each time we make a judgement on the actions of another, we’re forgetting to recognise that in doing so we’re falling into the trap of seeking to place ourselves on an equal footing with God, rather than at the foot of cross?

What troubled and bothered Jesus most, was that his thoughts, words and actions should glorify God, point to his love for all people, lead them into a new relationship with him, reconcile one group of people with another, and encourage all to follow him and grow in humility.

The question is, if we say we’re following Jesus, and seeking, like him, to glorify God in our lives, are those things bothering us?

Discovering what we don’t know – Mark 9:2-9 The Transfiguration

Just one of the carpets of Snowdrops in the churchyard at St. Mary's (on a dull day, sorry). Our snowdrops were one of my illustrations for my children's talk on The Transfiguration (see below).
Just one of the carpets of Snowdrops in the churchyard at St. Mary’s (on a dull day, sorry). Our snowdrops were one of my illustrations for my children’s talk on The Transfiguration (see below).

There are probably very few of us that haven’t had one of those moments when we see something amazing, and promptly say something that sounds, well, rather stupid, at least to the ears of others, even if it makes perfect sense to us.

My husband and I well remember an occasion when we welcomed a friend’s sister-in-law at Gatwick, on her first ever trip outside Zimbabwe. It was December 21st, and there were flurries of snow. Comfort, that’s her name, was incredibly excited. Excited to be in England, and excited to see snow, something she had only heard of previously, as existing in the mountains. After the excited chatter of the journey to our home, and having got her bags inside, we made her stand outside, and catch some snowflakes in her hand. “Its’ soooo coooold” she squealed, immediately shaking them from her hand. “Well of course” we said, “It’s snow; frozen water!” We tried to catch some flakes to show her the minute and amazing detail of a snowflake, but all she could repeat was “Its’ soooo cold!”

Peter, it couldn’t have been anyone else really, could it – Peter makes a similar sort of comment in our Gospel reading this morning, when he, together with James and John, is witness to something truly awe-inspiring, far more awe-inspiring than a mere snowflake. To us, with the advantage of hindsight because of course we know [sarcastic voice] so much more now than Peter did then, to us, Peter’s comments about the booths seems daft. Yet, he was simply trying to ground what he was seeing in a context he could understand, and perhaps capture the moment for posterity: if these transcendent beings, wrapped in a cloud of God’s presence, and arguably the two greatest prophets of his faith with the man that seemed to be surpassing them, where coming to commune together, they would need protection from the elements! Or else, a physical marker as to the place of their encounter, a monument to the moment.

So, we think we know so much more now than Peter did then, don’t we?!

WE KNOW that a few seconds later, Peter got possibly the biggest put down of his life, direct from God! “Hey,” says God. “This is my Son all lit up in glory here. Yes really, just like you guessed at a few days ago, but seem to have forgotten. Now if you really want to understand what you guessed at then, and are witnessing now, shut up and listen. To him.”

WE KNOW that the reason why Peter, James and John (among others), really still don’t get who Jesus is, and why he promptly swears them to secrecy, is that the ultimate breakthrough moment for the Kingdom of God to which this vision is hinting, won’t happen until Christ has died, and rises to new life, a fully transfigured life, the start of God’s new Kingdom in which Peter and the others’ will play a crucial role.

WE KNOW that some things in the Bible, simply can’t be neatly explained, because they are ‘of God’. We might not have had a vision of the Divine ourselves, but we know that others through history have had profound revelations of the nature of God, and we have learnt to trust their witness, their wisdom and the spiritual truths God has revealed to us through those encounters. For example, Julian of Norwich famously found a revelation of God’s overwhelming love and concern for all his creation, in a tiny hazel nut, such as we might find in the churchyard, if the squirrels didn’t get them first!

So if we know all these things, what then, like Peter, are we missing? I can’t see a cloud signifying God’s presence amongst us this morning! There’s no back-lit, ultra-violet induced, light show worthy of a camera-phone snapshot that I can see!  Where are the Old Testament prophets or medieval mystics in our company to point us to the divinity of Jesus, and the breaking in of God’s Kingdom in our own time?!

If we can’t see or always make sense of the significance of Jesus for our own lives, or the world at large, then firstly, I think it’s important to realise, we’re not alone. We know Peter’s been there before us, and to be honest, even if we’ve had moments of revelation that have helped our faith in Jesus before, it’s a tough ask to hold on to that faith once the moments past, as Peter would become all too aware, come cock crow on Good Friday.

But as we prepare to enter a Lenten search for a revelation of Christ’s divinity, or the presence of God’s Kingdom in world torn apart by suffering, there are, I think, two main approaches that we can take; at least two that I’m going to be contemplating this Lent.

The first is to look at the details. Peter and the others took in the detail the appearance of Jesus, Elijah and Moses, the cloud, even when it comes, God’s command. It’s a bit like a scientist looking through myriad super-computer telescope images for signs of the birth of a new star or universe, we need to look at the detailed picture presented by scripture of how Jesus was revealed as more than the ultimate in Old Testament prophets, both God and man, suffering servant and glorified Son, crucified scapegoat for religious zealots and risen Lord. What our specific focus is might vary hugely, and depend on what we’ve learnt in the past, or what we are struggling with in our personal faith journey, but looking at the detail carefully is key.

The second approach to searching for a Lenten revelation, is to simply stop looking. To stop. To stop and focus either on something else entirely, or nothing at all. When the three disciples climbed that mountain with Jesus there was nothing to suggest they were expecting what happened next. It was just a quiet moment with their teacher, and the dramatic scenery. There’s a lovely expression I encountered a few years ago which I really like, especially when I’ve had a rare opportunity to experience it – it’s the ability to “free-wheel with God”. To sit, or stand, and stare – not so much at something in particular but simply taking in the view, in a mind-emptying, spiritually calming, guilt free environment, where God can step in and fill the space in a way that only he knows we need. It might be that it needs a moment of free-flow creativity to help it happen, the gardening, a tapestry, a long walk; or it may be that a piece of writing, artwork or music might flow from it. It might be that just stopping, completely, is the key with no expectation of input or output.

The important thing, whether we’re looking at the detail of our faith in Christ, or simply stopping to experience God revealed in our own life and experiences, is to recognise what we’re seeing when we’re encountering it, and treasure it as something to come back to and reflect on again and again in the light of our future experiences. Because patently, that’s what James, John and indeed Peter did, else we wouldn’t have been drawn up short by their mountain top experiences this morning!

My children’s talk on the same reading focused on the idea of seeing the wonderful awesomeness of God in the detail of what we see, using the illustrations of salt and snowdrops. The brief outline is here: 2015-02-15 Mark 9v2-9 The Transfiguration – Kids talk

Preparing for the Coming One – Advent Sunday 2014

Are we looking toward Christmas too fast?
Are we getting ready for Christmas without preparing for it?

I wonder how much we really look forward to Christmas?
Honestly now?! I can see some wry grins… I didn’t think so. You’re possibly not the only ones!

Preparations. Hard work.
A mad gallop of events to cram into the diary, shop for, cook for, and stand, or sit, around at, listening politely, trying to take in something that will actually make us feel as jolly as the coming season of Christmas seems to think we should be.

Church doesn’t make things any easier, does it?!
We can’t really let the vicar down at this, of all, seasons, especially after we’ve said we’ll organise this,
or that, or the other.
And, he can’t really welcome every extra person who wants to come and celebrate the coming of Christ all by himself, can he?!
Or, perhaps, after all, that could be what curates are for?! 😉

But it would be lovely, wouldn’t it, if, before Jesus is born in a stable, all over again, we could have a little bit of a rest from the preparations that have to come first?!
Pleeeeaaaase, God?!

This Advent Sunday, we start to connect afresh with St. Mark’s Gospel; what I call the galloping gospel. There’s no time to draw breath, or unpack the detail, as layers of images pile quickly one on top of each other – a bit like the sliding tower of assorted Christmas cards, each waiting to be addressed appropriately!

Whilst we prepare for a Christmas neatly defined by a date looming in the calendar, the lectionary starts its year balanced delicately between past prophesies, and some distant future that can’t be defined on anyone’s calendar. Poised somewhere in between these two, is the present moment of our Christmas preparations, for the Coming One; the One who was, and is, and is to come (Rev 1:8).

In today’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah’s pleading prayer that God should reveal himself in power is not simply for his own spiritually weak generation, blown away on the breeze of the outside influences of their exile. The events it directly foretold were fulfilled in the restoration of Jerusalem. But, by Jesus’ time, God’s people are once again mired in the spiritual blindness and gloom that blunders forward through momentous events, largely oblivious of their significance.

Our Gospel this morning, collects into a passage of urgent teaching in tones almost of desperation, a couple of short parables and some sayings of Jesus, that actually refer forward again, at least in part, to the siege of Jerusalem that will occur in AD69, and the final destruction of the Temple the following year. The last of the great prophets, Jesus knew only too well that his mission on earth drew to a close the need for a Temple as a holy place that contained God; something which would be symbolised in the tearing of the Temple curtain at his death. Jesus’s freely given sacrifice would mean his resurrected presence in Word and Sacrament would ‘not pass away’, for it was to be enough for the whole world. He was Christ, the Coming One, who was the awaited Messiah of what is now history; he who changed the world, and our lives.

Yet, as we take on our Christmas lists, there are those for whom the tiny excerpts from Isaiah that open our Gospel passage from Mark are a present reality. The Son of Man, the Coming one who is, wants to come in power into the lives of those for whom the natural light of the sun is darkened by more than simply gloomy weather. For some, the moon expresses the sense that they can’t exist without the brightness of others to light up their lives, and stars are simply a set of glamorous or over-paid figures on whom is placed too great an expectation, and who all too easily fall to earth in tabloid disgrace.

And yet, the one who is, who should be the present reality of the coming Christmas season (if you’ll excuse the pun), the one who is, needs us to be his messenger angels, to go into all the events of the festive season showing visible signs of joyful expectation at his coming, not a sense of distracted and total exhaustion. Whilst our time-line is in danger of being a linear movement from one stressful task to the next, God’s time line is radically different and he seeks a new beginning in the lives of those who are attracted to the light of Christ only at this time of year. Our role is far more important than that of being Santa’s little helpers! It is to make Jesus, the Coming One, visible not just in the services, decorations, music and poetry of the season, but in our own lives – the invitations we offer, the time we take to do things for others, and yes, the welcome we give to strangers.

What Jesus is asking for, the alertness of watchful doorkeepers to who and what is coming, isn’t just a reminder to recognise at the door of the church those for whom Christ’s first coming is a new experience. Christ, the Coming One, who is to come again, is also expected, and this time he will come in judgement. What Jesus is making clear above all in this Gospel passage, is that judgement is just as much part of his earthly mission in the lives of all who encounter him, as their encounter with his birth, death and resurrection.

Our chief task this Advent, the focus of our spiritual preparations, should be a rededication of ourselves to holiness. It is not something else to be done, another thing to add to the Christmas lists in our busy lives, but the desire to take stock of our how our faith influences our life. Followed through, we should be able to see what in our lives look like in the eyes of the Coming one. If we truly believe that Jesus will come again, we have to have our senses alert to those areas of our lives that cause our faith to fade, and the wrong-doings and wrong-thinkings that take us away from God, like a swirling wind. If Christ was to come again today, what would he notice most about our lives, and would he judge that as being for better, or for worse?!

In today’s Old Testament passage, Isaiah speaks of the mountains and nations that tremble in the presence of God. If we stood in the presence of Jesus today, we might tremble for one of two reasons: either we will shake with thankful tears for his grace and sacrifice to which we have responded with a desire to ‘be blameless on that day of the Lord’ (1 Cor 1:8) as St. Paul desires in our Epistle; or we will tremble with fear that whilst we might have made the attempt, our lives will be found seriously wanting as far as living up to his example and teaching is concerned.

As we wait for ‘the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor 1:7) in the presence of the Coming One this Christmas, the one who was, and is, and is to come, we need to make our own preparations, ones that are truly appropriate not just to the modern context of the season, but to the spiritual context of it. It might be in prayer – the sort of prayer that gives space for God to answer. It may be in an Advent retreat or study book (with or without an online bookclub discussion), or in our willingness to do a new thing, or even in deciding that actually Christmas can still be celebrated without all the trimmings we’ve used in the past, to enable us to have space to be spiritually prepared as well. These are the activities in which we will encounter the ‘grace and peace of God our Father and our Lord Jesus’, and will mean we are truly “looking forward” to entering into Christ’s Mass, our joining in with his ongoing mission in the world.

How do you talk about God with pre-school children? Prayers and Bears!

George, a prince among bears - soft focus to protect his identity ;-)
George, a prince among bears – soft focus to protect his identity 😉

There’s something about ministry that means you end up with challenges you never expected to face. Leading a ‘Pram Service’ for pre-school children once a month is high on my current list of challenges. It’s name was the first challenge that I noticed: there are few who have prams these days!

I’ve watched the vicar do it once, with I have to say what appeared to be minimal planning, but he’s clever like that despite feeling a tad out his depth on this himself, I think it’s fair to say.

I was asked to do October’s. At the last minute he was called away to give someone the Last Rites, so wasn’t there to see the result. I used the lectionary for the day for inspiration (Like 11:5-13 The Lord’s Prayer) to focus on prayer, working on the basis that if you can’t teach very young children (some pre-speaking and crawling) anything else, giving them the confidence to talk to God, and making it fun was probably a good idea. I created a hand-prayer sheet. If they had the skills they could draw round an adult hand, otherwise it was simply something to take home to the family to encourage them to pray together (Hand Prayer sheet). We also blew bubbles when we prayed thank you at the end; I talked about God taking up our prayers as the bubble burst. Interestingly, I forgot to pray the Lord’s Prayer at the end as I had intended, I probably should have. An unexpected joy was having a mother confident enough to breast feed whilst I told the story.

These were both ideas I half knew about, but I wasn’t sure if I used them appropriately. However, I was greatly encouraged when the following Sunday a Dad I’d not met before stopped me after our little Family Eucharist service, and told me his daughter had come home talking about the hand prayers and blowing bubbles! Perhaps I’d done something useful?!

Asking around on-line a bit, someone introduced me to the Teddy Horsley books by Prof Leslie Francis et al. I’d not met them, and nor have my parish, but they looked a good idea, as they try and relate to ideas pre-schoolers experience. They also suggested a useful ministry for a beautiful teddy bear I’d been asked to re-home (another story entirely). @CoventryCanon (aka Good In Parts) whose knowledge of such things I deeply respect, also said how much she’d always wanted to start a ‘Prayers and Bears’ Service in her previous parish. I got rather excited at this point: this might be a way forward!

2014-11-17 12.34.56 cwLast week my teddy, now named George, helped me tell the Teddy Horsley Night Time story as we thought about the nights drawing in, all the noises of Halloween and Fireworks nights (for those who could or would talk to me), and how God cares for us. George proved a great ice-breaker – he seemed to make me more approachable, and he’d been taken off by one of the pre-speaking children before I started! The book links to Psalm 91, but doesn’t suggest craft activities, so I came up with an incredibly simple two minute ‘sticking feathers’ activity! The Lord will cover you with his wings Ps91

Last night, with both George the Teddy and some bubbles present, PCC affirmed what the vicar had approved, that from January the Pram Service will be re-launched as ‘Prayers and Bears’.

Although I can sing a reasonable action song unaccompanied when our pianist can’t make it, I have no training in how to approach children who often are pre-crawling, or very shy. I have just the one child of my own for several reasons, one being we discovered when we had him that I don’t “do” small children. God it seems has other ideas!

So, I’m looking for the collective wisdom of more experienced ministers on this. What have I done wrong so far in how I’ve approached them and the materials I’ve used, and who or where are the best places to get training in how to be better at it? I’ve been told for example that ‘Godly Play’ isn’t necessarily the best idea for pre-school children. Right, or wrong? What gems of wisdom and experience can you offer?

View from the Curate’s stall – ministerial isolation?

The curates stall at Harvest Festival
The curates stall at Harvest Festival

I sat in the congregation at a friends ordination service recently, for the first time in three months. I was in a church I’d never been in before.  I didn’t have to do anything, other than simply worship, and listen, and pray; no choreographed moves, no desperate search of the memory bank for what I needed to do next, no sense that stuff was expected of me, only the sense of expectation that accompanies the knowledge that God was there. I even got to sit next to my husband, and hold hands during the Bishop’s excellent sermon!

The occasion brought sharply into focus some of the changes that I have experienced since my ordination. One of these is that in my new church, I’m always sat in the curates stall, and not among the people. They’re all able to watch me, if they feel so inclined, and I can see some of them, and watch their expressions if I so wish. In my sending parish, where I led worship often as a Reader, this was only sometimes the case, not always.

In the curates stall, I’m isolated. There might be a server sat behind and to one side of me out of sight, but partially tucked behind the pulpit and across from the vicar, there isn’t anyone nearby. From here, I suspect that I’m possibly missing out on the spiritual hum, that hopefully exists within any Christian worship, because I need more than simply my eyes to sense it.

I can’t hear the stifled, swallowed gasps or giggles at the preachers jokes or references – only the ones that escape out loud. I can’t feel the hands or the hair of the person behind me brushing the back of my head as they pray. I can’t see the physical tremors that speak not only of possible infirmity, but of spiritual encounters with our Lord. I can’t catch the eye of a friend, and raise an eyebrow in shared, unspoken comment on something in the proceedings – or at least, I don’t feel that sat up there in curates stall that sort of behaviour is really appropriate. Any sense of expectation of, or reaction to what God is doing, is confined to the bowed heads, reverently lined up at the altar rail, hands outstretched to receive the elements at Eucharist.

My pinata-headed training incumbent stills the target for the children to attack during our Harvest celebrations in September - about as close to part of the congregation as I've got so far in our main morning service.
My pinata-headed training incumbent stills the target for the children to attack during our Harvest celebrations in September – about as close to part of the congregation as I’ve got so far in our main morning service.

That underlines the heart of the difference I suspect – I only get close to people at the Communion rail, or occasionally on the floor with the children in front of chapel altar in smaller services. Here is the isolation of the ordained minister that I had been warned of before ordination, and for which the antidote is the occasional offices with which we encounter people, often, though not exclusively, those outside of our regular congregation.

I wonder if this is one of the reasons why in more catholic, Eucharistic worshipping communities, the value of pastoral visiting is heightened? Is this the experience of others who have migrated between traditions, or am I making more of the significations of this ministerial isolation than I need to?

A neighbours first aid box – Luke 10 The Good Samaritan

My 'first aid box' is hardly an approved medical standard, but it did help me unpack the story of the Good Samaritan and what it means to love our neighbour.
My ‘first aid box’ is hardly an approved medical standard, but it did help me unpack the story of the Good Samaritan and what it means to love our neighbour.

Our Family Eucharist is a regular term-time feature of parish life attracting families with very young children because of it’s late morning service time (11.15am). It uses one of the Children’s Eucharistic Prayer and has a simple pattern of the same songs being sung weekly, except for a single one that reflects the theme of the Gospel. 

The Gospel for today was Matthew 22:34-end the first part of which is the two greatest commandments, but I decided to unpack the second of these actually using The Good Samaritan (Luke 10) in The Storyteller Bible (p80), and asking the children sat on the rug between the Eucharistic table and the lecturn: What does it mean to love your neighbour? Helping make them better? What’s in my FIRST AID BOX?

Tissues = mopping up the tears…. just giving someone tissues to dry their tears if they are really sad is showing love towards that person – it proves you care even if you don’t know or understand why they are sad. It might also mean praying with them, or it might mean going home and praying for them later.

Plaster = stops the bleeding when we cut ourselves – stopping the initial problem from getting any worse. If we just stop and look for a moment, we might be able do something to stop a problem getting worse – it’s what the priest and the other man didn’t do in the story! sometimes we don’t understand each other, and taking time to listen to what your parent, friend or sibling really means can be like putting a plaster on a wound to stop it getting any worse. Then you can go back to being friends again.

Bandage = for when things are really broken – it stops the bits that are broken coming apart completely. It’s what the Good Samaritan had to do before he even put the injured man on his donkey to take him to safety. A hospital will actually put a plaster over this. It gives time for the broken bits to heal back together so that the break is as good as new and whatever was broken can be used again. Sometimes it can take a long time for people to heal up.

Cotton wool = padding…. we can be someone who comes between a hard place in life and the person it’s affecting. It might mean going with them to a difficult place – like a parent who goes with their child to the Doctor, like the Samaritan put the injured person on a donkey and took him to a place where he could get better.

Witch Hazel = something to bring the bruising out faster so it doesn’t hurt for so long. Often we can’t make the pain go away, but perhaps by doing something with them to cheer someone up, we can give them something else to focus on, so the really bad pain of the nasty thing that happened to them doesn’t last as long. It can be why people buy someone flowers, or a present, when it’s not their birthday or Christmas! After all the Good Samaritan had to spend money to give the injured man a safe place to stay, even though he didn’t stay with him for the whole length of time that it took for the man to get better.

So, being a good neighbour means thinking about what we can do to help them when they need it. It means we’ve got to take time to be with people, and perhaps listen to them, even when possibly we’ve got into an argument with them. It means remembering that when people hurt it can take a long time for them to feel better. It might mean praying with them and for them, telling God how much we care and we want their lives to be made well, just as we want to get better when it’s us that’s hurting.

Because we can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube – Matthew 21v23-32

2014-09-27 22.06.59 cSermon for the 15th after Trinity (Proper 21)

Ezekiel 18:1-4 and 25-end, Philippians 2:1-13 and Matthew 21:23-32

On Thursday afternoon I watched as two of the children from St. Mary’s School, stood here in church during a Year 5 Act of Worship and drew faces on a piece of black card, with toothpaste. Their teacher made it into a bit of a race, but I was as mystified as the kids as to what the purpose of this strange activity was. Until that is, he asked them to try and get the toothpaste back in the tubes!

Of course, the children couldn’t do it, and there was considerable hilarity all round.

The key word for the last couple of weeks in school has been RESPONSIBILITY and the point was made that once we’ve said, or done, something, we have to take responsibility for the consequences, whether or not we did or said that thing deliberately.

It’s a tough lesson in life isn’t it? Whatever we choose to say or do in our lives, however minor, will have consequences for which we have to take responsibility. A lot of the time, things go smoothly. Sometimes however, we make wrong decisions, either because we simply haven’t thought things through for ourselves in the heat of the moment, or perhaps because we’re scared of the consequences of all the possible options, or perhaps we deliberately decide on something to avoid the embarrassment factor of having to admit that perhaps a decision we made in the past was the wrong one.

There are in fact lots of reasons for making the wrong decisions, but the chief priests and elders of Israel seemingly manage to notch up several of them all at once in our Gospel reading this morning.

They are all out to get Jesus to state unequivocally that he is the Messiah, but they don’t want to raise the question directly. After all, Jesus has just had the nerve to make it look like he thinks the Temple is his, by turning over the tables, throwing out the money changers and sacrifice sellers, and firmly quoting scripture: “my house shall be called a house of prayer”. It’s a provocative act, and it inspires the chief priests and elders to try and get this upstart from Galilee to blaspheme in the way that others have done before him, by declaring himself to be the Messiah, God’s long-awaited, and chosen means of drawing people to himself.

Trying to trick people into declaring a particular stance that you want to be theirs, is rarely a good way of moving a conversation forward, as the leaders of Israel discover, when Jesus carefully uses one of their own, long-held, rabbinic forms of debate to try and get them to think through and declare the answer for themselves.

Then, by dodging that responsibility and taking the route of diplomatic uncertainty, rather than offering their own viewpoint honestly, they forfeit their own right to a straight answer to the original question. It’s not that they’re stupid, it’s an act of self preservation: they don’t fancy being lynched. Equally, they don’t want to suggest that John the Baptist was divinely inspired to baptise people, including this Jesus, because that leaves the door open to the possibility that he is exactly what they don’t want him to be, but they do want him to claim he is. If he were the Messiah, God’s anointed, it not only places him in authority over them, but it rather puts them out of a job with regard to the Temple! One could say they are jealously guarding their existing rights and ways of operating, and that’s an unhelpful motivation in anyone.

In the parable that Jesus goes on to tell, pointedly directed at the priests and elders themselves, what counts is not what we promise, but our performance, and for this we have to take personal responsibility. Jesus even gives them the answer to their original, unspoken question in a roundabout way, by pointing out that they have failed to recognise and acknowledge God’s saving action towards all people, including, and particularly the outcasts of their society. The point is of course that if the chief priests and elders had themselves believed that the baptism John offered was divinely inspired and directed, they would also be accepting of Jesus as the Messiah.

It’s not like their scriptures didn’t show that God had clearly and repeatedly asked them to take responsibility for their own misguided understandings in the past, including a tendency to blame God for their own mistakes. Our reading from Ezekiel (18:31) shows this as they are as to get themselves ‘a new heart and a new spirit’. Generations of leaders had it seems failed to learn from their own mistakes. It was a theme which is warmed to in our Epistle this morning too, as the early Christian community in Philippi are exhorted to ‘work out their own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil 2:12), to take seriously their own spiritual inadequacies!

Just like the chief priests and elders of Israel and these early Christians, we all do it, sadly. We all would prefer to avoid the responsibility of thinking for ourselves, taking the consequences for our actions, making our actions live up to our words, and making our daily lives live up the Christian faith we profess. We don’t like the fact that we can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube!

In the case presented in our Gospel today, the inability of the chief priests and elders to set aside their own prejudices, jealousies and unwillingness to seek a new heart and a new spirit before God, cost Jesus his life and fulfilled the ultimate expression of God’s love for us all, as is so beautifully expressed in the early part of the Philippians passage.

The key, I think, is in the very last words of that passage…’God is at work in us, enabling us to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Phil 2:13). It is incredibly hard, but we have to give God free reign/rein in our lives, that is our prime responsibility. That’s why as a church we create opportunities for prayer and worship throughout the week, why we’re running the Pilgrim Course, we share fellowship together, collect for the Food Bank, care for the churchyard, seek new opportunities to share the Gospel etc.

Of course we have to make sure that we’re allowing Jesus into every hidden part of our lives – that’s our individual, private responsibility day by day, that gives our outward actions integrity. We have to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and then ask for the strength to move forward and make changes in our lives, explain or face difficult truths or toughest of all accept that we can be wrong, and do wrong. After all the cross and resurrection offers us God’s forgiveness and the hope of new life with him, every time we come before him with honesty and ask to start again. He’s the only one that can, metaphorically speaking, put the toothpaste of our lives, back in the tube.