Sermon for Proper 13

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (+). Amen.

Before I begin, I would like to make a brief apology, which is that I will be referring to these papers in front of me rather more than I would like.

The reason I have to apologise is that I had worked out what I wanted to say today – I had done my reading, thinking, praying and even a lot of the writing, and then something happened this week that stopped me in my tracks.

If you follow the news you can’t have avoided the increasing number of reports of violent attacks happening across Continental Europe. The truck attack in Nice, the shooting in Munich, a machete attack and suicide bombing also in Germany. And then this week the murder of the catholic priest Fr Jacques Hamel in his church in Rouen, slaughtered by Islamist extremists as he was saying Mass.

As I said, something happened this week.

‘Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”‘

Disagreements between brothers and sisters seem to be as old as the Bible itself.

You’ll all remember the Old Testament story of Joseph and his coat given to him by his father. Joseph’s brothers were so jealous that he was his father’s favourite that they planned to murder Joseph and threw him in a well. Then seeing some passing merchants they sold Joseph into slavery. Their own brother. It was years later before the brothers were reconciled with Joseph.

Joseph’s own father Jacob had a twin brother called Esau. Now, Jacob tricked his older brother Esau out of his father’s inheritance. Esau was so furious at Jacob that he vowed to kill him, and Jacob fled into exile. Again, it was many years before they were finally reconciled.

And Jacob’s father Isaac, well we’ll come back to him.

Even before Isaac, way back almost at the beginning of the Bible you’ll find the story of Cain and Abel. The two brothers, the first two brothers in the Bible, fell out over who had given the best offering to God. Cain’s jealousy at his brother boils over into murder. There was no possibility of reconciliation for these two.

Let’s come back to the story of Isaac.

Isaac, the father of the brothers Jacob and Esau, had a brother. Not a full brother, but a half brother. That half brother’s name was Ishmael. Isaac and Ishmael’s father was that great figure of the Old Testament, Abraham.

Isaac’s mother was Abraham’s wife Sarah, but Ishmael’s mother was Sarah’s servant girl called Hagar. Abraham and Hagar had had the boy Ishmael when Sarah thought she was too old to have a baby, giving Abraham Hagar in her place. But, God being God, didn’t leave things there and some years later Sarah had a child with Abraham, the boy Isaac. And, eventually, Sarah became so jealous of Isaac’s older brother Ishmael that she persuaded Abraham to abandon Ishmael together with his mother and drive them into the wilderness.

Now, tradition has it that these two half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael went on to be the founding Fathers of two great Nations and faiths. The younger brother, Isaac, went on to be the Father of the Jewish people and the ancestor of Jesus Christ, and our spiritual ancestor as well. The older brother, Ishmael, was the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad and the Father of the Islamic faith.

Just five days ago in the church of St Etienne in Rouen, the 85-year old priest Fr Jacques Hamel was saying Mass in front of a small congregation. Two attackers who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State entered the church. An 86-year old parishioner was stabbed, seriously injuring him. And the attackers cut the throat of Fr Jacques as he knelt at the foot of the altar, killing him.

Pope Francis described Fr Jacques as a casualty in a piecemeal war that has been going on for some time. The Pope did stress, though, that this was not a religious war and that all religions want peace. And only this week 70,000 Muslim clerics at a gathering in in India issued an official message condemning terrorism and terrorists.

It is not religions themselves that cause wars, but their followers, or perhaps I should say so-called followers who hijack religions as an excuse for war. And these conflicts around religion are almost as old as religion itself.

According to the Biblical account, those brothers Isaac and Ishmael were never fully reconciled with one another. They are only mentioned as having met once again, to bury their father Abraham when he died. Perhaps there was reconciliation in that moment of grief and mourning. What a lesson that would have been for us now, but we will never know.

Many people are already declaring Fr Jacques Hamel to be a martyr. We worship here in the church of St George the Martyr, but we don’t often have cause to think about what we mean by the word martyr. Fr Jacques was killed because of his Christian faith and for no other reason, and without seeking his own death. That, in the eyes of the church is what makes somebody a martyr.

I found out something new and truly surprising this week in the days following Fr Jacques’s death. I was reading a short tribute to him written by a Benedictine Nun of Holy Trinity Monastery in Herefordshire. In it she described how the nuns had “prayed for the perpetrators, that they might be forgiven, for the wounded that they might recover, but for Fr Jacques, who was murdered at the altar, there was only the Te Deum.”

The Te Deum, for those who do not know it, is a great Christian hymn of praise. It is that hymn which begins “We praise thee, O God : we acknowledge thee to be the Lord. All the earth doth worship thee : the Father everlasting.” It will be familiar to those of you who remember said or choral Matins.

The barbaric slaughter of a priest seemed a strange, wholly inappropriate, time to be saying or singing a great hymn of praise to God. Surely, solemn prayer for his soul and respectful mourning were more appropriate?

The nun continued in her tribute “Fr Jacques joins the long line of those who have witnessed to Christ by their blood. He did not choose to die, he was murdered; and he was murdered simply and solely because he was a Christian. He is thus a true martyr, and it has long been the custom of the Church, when hearing of martyrdom, to praise God by singing the Te Deum.”

This still struck me as odd and difficult to get my head round. Perhaps when we sing our final hymn today you could imagine singing it in response to hearing of the news of someone who had been murdered because of their Christian faith. It jars. Deeply. The first four lines of that hymn:

Alleluia, alleluia!
Hearts to heaven and voices raise:
sing to God a hymn of gladness,
sing to God a hymn of praise.

Why does the Church, and this nun, single out those who have witnessed to Christ by their blood? Why does she single out those we call martyrs? Well, surely because part of Christ’s own witness involved the shedding of his blood. Jesus Christ, God come among us in human form, was slaughtered on the cross by those he came to save. The same Christ called on his followers to take up their own crosses and follow Him; to give their lives for Him, in whatever way that took. Those who have had their lives taken away because of their faith in Christ have been given a special place by the Church as those prepared to pay the ultimate price for their faith; their life.

The next two lines of our final hymn seem more appropriate to me:

He, who on the cross a victim,
for the world’s salvation bled,

If the story of Jesus Christ had ended there on the cross, there would be no Te Deums being said or sung for Fr Jacques. And yet, there are.

If Christianity tells us anything about death, it is that it is not the end; death is not the last word. After Jesus had been killed on the cross he was laid in a tomb, but on the third day after he had died the tomb was empty. The stories from his followers were that Jesus who had been dead was now alive, that he had walked again with his followers, spoken to them, eaten and drunk with them, and blessed them.

The Love of God is stronger than death. The Love of God is still stronger than Death today.

I think perhaps this is why Fr Jacques will have Te Deums said and sung for him. Fr Jacques’s death will not be the end for him. Fr Jacques will see God and Jesus. His witness to Christ in the manner of his death assures him of that. And what of those who murdered him? In God’s vast Love and Mercy they will come to know what a horrific thing they did. And they will be reconciled with Fr Jacques, as will Cain and Abel and all those who couldn’t be reconciled in this life, even Isaac and Ishmael.

Jesus Christ, the King of glory,
now is risen from the dead.

Sermon for Lent 3C

Luke 13 :1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (+) Amen

I can just picture the scene on Monday morning.  You’re back at work, or at home, or you’ve just popped out to the shops, and you get chatting to someone you know – a friend, a family member, a work colleague, or just one of the shop assistants you know better than the rest.

They ask you about some of the things they’ve seen in the news recently.  The building collapse in Taiwan, and the train crash in southern Germany a few weeks ago.  The people killed and injured in the accident at Didcot Power Station.  The 40 people killed in a cyclone in Fiji.  The regular slaughter of innocent people in continuing suicide bomb attacks in the Middle East.  School shootings in the USA.  All those innocent people dead.

You’re a Christian, the other person says.  What had these people done wrong? What had they done to God to deserve this?

You remember the Gospel reading from today and you say that, of course, these people had done nothing to anger God.  They didn’t die because God was punishing them.  These things just happen, you say.

Then you remember a bit more of today’s Gospel reading, and feeling bold you say that Jesus said that if we don’t repent of our sins we’ll all end up dying in the same way…

I somehow don’t think that last bit would go down very well.  Perhaps it’s not the sort of thing you’d say.  I wouldn’t.

Jesus said it though.  I get the impression that repenting of our sins was a big deal to him.

Talking to other people about our faith is never easy.  I certainly don’t find it easy.  But talking about sin and repentance is particularly difficult.

They’re not really the sort of things we like to talk about.  There are certain things it’s just not proper to talk about in polite company, and I think “sin” and “repentance” probably fall within that category.  Why do we never talk about them?

Don’t get me wrong, there are some people who talk about sin all the time.  I’m sure we’ve all seen street preachers heckling people, railing at them, shouting that they need to repent of their sins or else they’ll burn in hell.  That’s probably talking about it too much.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that.

But there is a danger of going too far the other way and never, ever talking about sin.  We are now in the church season of Lent, when we remember Jesus’s time spent in the desert facing his own temptations.  And one of the things some people like to do in Lent is to examine their lives and think about what areas might need a little attention; a little pruning; a little weeding; where they need to repent of their sins.  Much easier said than done.

But before we get any further, what do we even mean when we talk about “sin” and “repentance”?

Because those two words “sin” and “repent” don’t mean all that much outside this building.  We hear them a lot in our church services.  But to those not familiar with church those words might as well be in a different language.  Even for regular churchgoers it can sometimes feel like we speak in different languages in here and out there.

When I was buying Serena some Christmas presents at the end of last year I bought a jar of sweets for her and the company which made them was called “Sugar Sin”.  Perhaps this means that sin is all about sweets?!

Is sin somehow about that little treat, that sweet or chocolate bar, that we know we shouldn’t have, but that we have anyway.  And we enjoy it.  Is that what sin is all about?

Or if we take note of what some parts of the Church of England spend a lot of time talking about, we might think sin was all to do with which people we should and should not sleep with and who people are allowed to marry.  It sometimes feels as if sin is all about sex.  Is that really what sin is all about?

Or sometimes we reserve the word sin in our minds for the very worst things we can imagine.  Really evil things.  Sin has to do with Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and the very worst things we can imagine, but not really with us.  Is that what sin is all about?

I think all three of these images get sin wrong.  Sin might be about having too much food, when we know that others are going without.  Sex might be sinful if it is abusive.  [Noone doubts that Hitler, Stalin and others like them were sinful.] 

But none of those images really gets to the heart of what we mean when we talk about “sin”.  And at the heart, of course, is God and our relationship with God and with each other, and where those relationships go wrong.

One of my favourite theologians and writers is the American Frederick Buechner.  He had this to say about sin[.  I’m paraphrasing slightly]:

“sin is whatever you do, or fail to do, that pushes other people, the world and God away, that widens the gap between you and them and also the gaps within your self”

I quite like that.

But, you say, how am I meant to know what things I’m doing or not doing which push God out of the way and tear me up in side?

I think you know.  I think each of us knows those things we do which, in our heart, we know to be wrong.  That’s not the difficult bit.  The difficult bit is not doing them.

St Paul says this in his letter to the Romans:

“I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

The difficult bit is stopping doing those things we know in our heart to be wrong.

And the first step to stopping is what we might call “repentance”.

And in some ways it’s a backwards step.  “Repentance” means literally “turning”.  Turning round to go in another direction.  Taking your life in a different direction.

I don’t know if you’ve seen those posters on the trains that go up and down to London.  “Want to take your career in a different direction? Call us now on 0800……..”.

If only it were that easy with our relationship with God!  Or perhaps it is that easy.  Perhaps it’s just a matter of saying “You know what God, I’m sorry for this and that, and that’s the end of it.  OK?”

That’s not my experience.  It isn’t as easy as that.  We go wrong, we say sorry, we want to do better, but we slip back into old patterns of behaviour, the same things happen again, and now we’re right back where we started.  Only now we have the crushing guilt of feeling we let God down.

Baby steps, baby steps.  We turn around; we repent; it doesn’t work; we try again.  We turn around; we repent; it doesn’t work; we try again.  And again.  And again.  And again for as long as it takes.  Perhaps it takes a lifetime.

And God will wait for you.  You remember that story Jesus told about the boy who ran away from his father with his share of the inheritance.  Used up all the money in a few months.  Came crawling back to the father, who rushed out to meet him with open arms.  The father waited for the boy.  God will wait.  And rush out to meet us with open arms.

But we don’t like waiting.  We get tired and bored, don’t we?  We don’t want to take baby steps: we want giant leaps.  We don’t want to work on things for years: we want things sorted right now.

Perhaps we think we can find a quick fix, a quick way to deal with the bad things we do, the bad thoughts we have.  “If I can just find the right prayer to pray, that will sort everything.”  Or “There’s this church, and they have a special blessing and that’s it all washed away”.  Or “There’s this book you can read and that will make sense of it all”

Well, if it all works out for you like that, great.  But what about the rest of us?

Well, then the temptation comes just to give up.  We keep getting things wrong until eventually we write ourselves off.  We consider our lives worthless, and not worth fixing.  Or we do it to others – we write off people all the time.

Jesus put it like this ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”’

Now this man with the fig tree, he’s being quite reasonable.  A space in his vineyard is being taken up by a fig tree which won’t bear fruit; so it should be cut down and replaced with something which will pay for itself come harvest time.  The fig tree is a write off.  Economically, the sensible decision is to get rid of it.

But what if this story isn’t about fig trees, but about people.  Are we still happy that cutting people down is the right thing to do?

A lot of the interpretations of this story say that God is the owner of the fig tree.  God is impatient with our lives, our unfruitfulness and wants to cut us down to give another life a chance.

Can that really be the same God who like the father waits for the errant boy gone off with the family silver.  The God who rushes out with open arms to greet the boy; the silver nowhere to be seen?

No, no, I don’t think so.

Suppose for a second that you are the owner of the vineyard, and the fig tree is how you feel about some aspect of your life: your career, a relationship, perhaps your life of faith, or just how you view your whole life.  And you don’t like what you see, things aren’t bearing fruit, what you’ve tried hasn’t worked to improve things, so you’ve given up and you say “Cut it down!”  “I want another one.  I want a different one”

And Jesus says “Give me a year”.  “Give me a chance”.  “Let me tend to you.  Let me do a bit of weeding.  Let me put the fertiliser down.  I don’t mind getting my hands dirty.  A bit of muck here, a bit of manure there?  No problem.  I can handle that.”

Jesus is always there, waiting for us to invite him in.  Jesus in the book of Revelation says “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” Think of that when we come to the time of sharing Communion together – Jesus standing at the very threshold waiting to be joined with us as we break bread and share wine.

Jesus wants to help us, to lighten the burdens we feel we carry.  Jesus in Matthew’s gospel says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Comforting images.

It all looks so easy when it’s written down on paper.  It all sounds so easy sat here together.  But in reality it’s not. Knowing Jesus is there for us, and is there to help us can be very easy to believe one day. And feel impossible to believe the next.

Which is why we need each other, why we need the community of people we call a Church.  Why we need to look out for each other and look after each other.  Why we need to pray for each other.  Why we need to do what Jesus would do and walk alongside those in need.

There was a man walking down a street when he falls in a hole.  The walls are so steep, he can’t get out.  A doctor passes by, and the man shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?”  The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.  Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?”  The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.  Then a friend walks by.  “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?”  And the friend jumps in the hole.  The man says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.”  The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

Jesus says “Give me a year”.  “Give me a chance”.  “Let me jump into the hole you’ve got yourself in and show you the way out”.  Will you let him?

Amen.

The grace of God. Yet again. What else?!

In many ways this morning started like most other mornings.  I woke up to my alarm feeling like I needed more sleep: like I normally do.  I got up, showered, dressed, leaving the house about 45 minutes after I got up.  I walked to the train station, got my train, said morning prayer on the train and got off at Waterloo East.  I got the 521 bus and got off one stop earlier than I needed to so I could get a coffee and some breakfast from a food place called Leon.  So far, so normal.

Then something different.

Anyone working in London, or any major city, will be aware of the large number of homeless people who live and try to get by in our city centres.  I frequently see homeless people in the area where I work: sometimes I give them money and sometimes I don’t.  I don’t feel great when I don’t.  This morning I saw a guy sat outside the door of my breakfast spot.  He was obviously homeless, filthy dirty, wearing tattered clothes and shoes so worn out they were falling off his feet.  It’s always tempting with some homeless people who ask for money to wonder how in need of help they are.  There was no wondering with this guy – he did not look in a good way.

I walked into my breakfast place ignoring the ragged man out on the street, and instantly regretted not having gone up to him to ask if I could get him anything to eat or drink.  Inside by now I felt too embarrassed, and ashamed of my lack of compassion, to turn around and approach him.  I ordered my coffee and breakfast.

Then, thank God for second chances; thank the God *of* second chances – the homeless man came in to ask for some milk in a coffee he had.  The milk was given.  As the man turned to go I asked him if he wanted anything to eat.  He said he was alright, but thanks for asking.  I paid and left the shop.

As I passed the man now sat beside the shop he said thanks and said he hoped I had a good day.  I wished him the same.  At that moment he seemed to me suddenly more beautiful than anything else around; certainly more beautiful than the hordes of suits ignoring him and me.  Beautiful exactly how he was: beautiful in his filthy state; beautiful in his ragged clothes; beautiful in his toe-flapping shoes.  He seemed the most fully alive thing I could see – so alive I wanted to embrace him.

By the grace of God I saw him for who he truly was: a beloved child of God, every bit as loved as any and every human being.

Splinters remain (Matthew 28:1-10)

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

Matthew’s account of the resurrection differs somewhat from those recalled in Luke’s and John’s gospels.  When Jesus appears to His disciples in Matthew’s account they instantly know who He is, fall at His feet and offer to Him what should only be offered to God Himself: worship.  In the other gospel accounts, Jesus’ followers aren’t quite so quick on the uptake.

According to Luke’s account the two travellers on the road to Emmaus did not initially recognise their fellow traveller as the risen Jesus.  It was only when He took some bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them that his identity was revealed.  Perhaps a reminder of the Eucharistic practice of the early church?  In the gospel according to John when Mary Magdalene meets the risen Jesus in the garden she doesn’t recognise him and assumes him to be the gardener.  Only when Jesus addresses her by name does Mary turn and see Who is standing before her.

It’s often remarked that although Jesus’s appearance (in Luke and John’s accounts at least) is not as it was before His crucifixion, at least His wounds did endure the resurrection.  In John’s account it is only when the disciple Thomas sees Christ’s wounds that he believes that it is really Him.  Those things we might expect to endure the resurrection, such as physical appearance, may in fact not do so; whereas certain other things – scars, wounds, physical ailments – that we expect to be wiped away in the resurrection for some reason might not be.

One thing I took away from James Alison’s book “Knowing Jesus” was that to think of our Lord only as the risen Lord was too simplistic.  Jesus Christ is the crucified-and-risen Lord.  Crucifixion as much as resurrection is a part of who He is, who He is to us, and who we are called to be for Him.  So, just as even the bleakest moment of the Christian year, Good Friday, is tinged with the future hope of the resurrection, so this highest point of joy, Easter Sunday, still retains a note of sadness.  Yes, the Lord is risen: Alleluia!  But He is not risen without having died in the first place, and through the fault of sinful humanity who could not accept God amongst them.

So much of Christian preaching and spirituality focuses – and rightly so – on our status as Easter people; people living in the Light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and living in hope of our own resurrection at the end of all things.  And I suppose that particular slant is what has come to dominate my personal theology too.

But something feels different this year.  It is Easter Sunday; it feels good and right to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord; it is one of those particularly joyful years when Western and Eastern (Orthodox) Christians celebrate Easter on the same day; and yet I can’t quite forget Good Friday.

I don’t know why in particular things should feel different this year.  I found the experience of venerating the cross for the first time this Good Friday particularly moving.  Kneeling before a large, rough wooden cross; laying my hand on it; laying my head against it; all the while contemplating what took place on a larger, rougher wooden cross two millenia ago; and then gently touching my lips to the wood.  Perhaps that is what it was; I don’t know.  Good Friday is past, but a few splinters of that wood feel as if they remain.

I wish you all a very Happy Easter.  Jesus Christ is risen – Alleluia.  Crucified and risen – Alleluia.

The middle ground

Early on the Sabbath day, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone was covering the entrance to the tomb.  And Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  They came to the village to which they were going.

When it was evening on that day, the disciples gathered in a house and locked the doors for fear of the Jews.   But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them.

After these things the disciples were gathered together by the Sea of Tiberias: Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others.  Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Well, it could have happened that way…

Three falls

No original reflection from me today – it feels like everything that can be said about Good Friday has already been said.  Instead I’ll share with you three beautiful sonnets from Malcolm Guite’s Stations of the Cross (http://wordpress.com/read/blog/id/4531601/).  The three poems and stations I found particularly moving when I read them are the three times Jesus falls under the weight of the cross.

III Jesus falls the first time

He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion
And well he knows the path we make him tread
He met the devil as a roaring lion
And still refused to turn these stones to bread,
Choosing instead, as Love will always choose,
This darker path into the heart of pain.
And now he falls upon the stones that bruise
The flesh, that break and scrape the tender skin.
He and the earth he made were never closer,
Divinity and dust come face to face.
We flinch back from his via dolorosa,
He sets his face like flint and takes our place,
Staggers beneath the black weight of us all
And falls with us that he might break our fall.

VII Jesus falls the second time

Through all our veils and shrouds of daily pain,
Through our bruised bruises and re-opened scars,
He falls and stumbles with us, hurt again
When we are hurt again. With us he bears
The cruel repetitions of our cruelty;
The beatings of already beaten men,
The second rounds of torture, the futility
Of all unheeded pleading, every scream in vain.
And by this fall he finds the fallen souls
Who passed a first, but failed a second trial,
The souls who thought their faith would hold them whole
And found it only held them for a while.
Be with us when the road is twice as long
As we can bear. By weakness make us strong.

IX Jesus falls the third time

He weeps with you and with you he will stay
When all your staying power has run out
You can’t go on, you go on anyway.
He stumbles just beside you when the doubt
That always haunts you, cuts you down at last
And takes away the hope that drove you on.
This is the third fall and it hurts the worst
This long descent through darkness to depression
From which there seems no rising and no will
To rise, or breathe or bear your own heart beat.
Twice you survived; this third will surely kill,
And you could almost wish for that defeat
Except that in the cold hell where you freeze
You find your God beside you on his knees.

My favourite Bible story (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

‘For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’

A few weeks ago, our Vicar in his sermon challenged us to think about what our favourite Bible story is…and to tell people about it.  Well, here it is, and I’m doing the telling!

Recounted so briefly in St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, this one story has come to define the church over the last two millenia.  It has come to define me.  And this night, Maundy Thursday as we call it, we remember particularly that last supper that Jesus shared with his friends before his cruel death.  That night when he took bread and wine and gave them to his followers as His Body and His Blood, telling us to do likewise.

Jesus Christ, the baby born in a borrowed stable in Bethlehem, God Himself made man and given to us now stands in a borrowed room in Jerusalem and gives of Himself once again.  Inviting us to take our most deeply longed for nourishment from His own substance God takes one more risk for us and His creation.  God held in the palm of our hand, eaten, drunk of, taken up into our bodies, our breaths, our thoughts, our lives: it us up to us what we do with this Body, this Blood, this God made man.

In only a few short hours Jesus would be dead and His broken body laid in a borrowed tomb; the final borrowed resting place.  But for now He keeps his focus on the present, gives thanks for the simple meal He has to share with His friends and hands to them His safety, His dignity, His beauty – given to those of them and us who desert Him in His hour of greatest need, and those who would even betray him to His death.  One more sleepless night in prayer, then what He knows has been coming, what He knows must happen, what He prays would be taken from Him.

Keeping my own sleepy vigil in our church late this evening I asked myself what to say to this God made man, to the One who had invited me to His feast, and who now sits weeping and alone in the silent garden.  What can be said?  There’s a long way yet to go: many miles before we get to Emmaus.   And the hour is now at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.  God in the palm of our hand: it is up to us what we do with Him.

A long way behind (John 11:1-45)

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two milesaway, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

I’m feeling so far behind in my blogging at the moment.  This post is for the Sunday before last; I still owe a post for two Sundays before that; AND for the Sunday just gone: Palm Sunday.  And we’re now into Holy Week already.  The pressure to say something worth reading rather than just something at all is always there, but I’m so short of time now that I’m just going to have to put some thoughts down and move on.

A first thing that struck me about this passage is John’s portrayal of “the Jews”.  When John refers to “the Jews” in his gospel he doesn’t mean the everyday citizens of the time, but the religious authorities – the scribes, the pharisees, or the chief priests and their entourage.  John’s portrayal of them is usually very negative: they are the ones who conspire to have Jesus put to death and who whip up the crowds into a frenzy against him.  At the beginning of this passage there’s a typical reference to “the Jews” – the disciples warn Jesus that he will be stoned by the Jews if he returns to Judea.

But later on in the passage it is the self same “Jews” who are comforting Martha and Mary after the death of their brother Lazarus.  They are actually there before Jesus!  It’s perhaps a reminder that however bad and evil we might think some people are; they are still human; they are still capable of kindness.  And by the end of the passage many of the Jewish authorities – these traditional enemies of Jesus – have come to believe in him.  There is still within most people the capacity to surprise us.

Thomas’s attitude in the passage also seems really strange – when he hears that Lazarus is dead he says “Let us also go, that we may die with him”.  This doesn’t seem to be in response to a call from Jesus for the disciples to follow Him to their own deaths, but a spontaneous reaction to hearing that a friend had died.  I’m not really quite sure I understand this attitude – perhaps Thomas was just confused.  Perhaps it does mean something and I just don’t understand it!  Perhaps he was referring to Jesus’s attitude of heading back to Judea to help out their friends no matter the risk to his own life.  On reflection, that sounds more like it, but who am I to know.

I think that’s all I have inspiration or time for right now!  The everyday is calling once more.

A lengthy spell of blindness (John 9:1-41)

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

I’m really struggling with these longer gospel passages from John we’re having at the moment.  I owe a blog post for two Sundays ago based on a long passage from John, am trying to do this one for the Sunday just gone based on another long passage from John, and know there’s a further long passage from John awaiting this Sunday too.  I find John quite a readable gospel, but it’s just heavier going trying to write a reflection (rather than sermon) on these long passages.

I get the feeling that the telling of this healing miracle would have been considerably shorter had it been in Matthew, Mark or Luke’s gospel.  In this account we hear of the blind man’s encounter with Jesus, the restoration of the blind man’s sight, an encounter between the blind man and his neighbours, the man is interviewed by the pharisees who then call his parents in for questioning too, the pharisees then question the blind man again, and then at the end of the story Jesus encounters the blind man a further time.  There’s quite a lot going on, and it has to be assumed that the author of John’s gospel included the details he did for a reason.

What to take away from this passage in  few words?  Firstly I find it interesting that following the restoration of the blind man’s sight his neighbours and those who had previously seen him begging couldn’t make up their mind whether it was really him or not.  Surely only his eyes had been healed; not the appearance of his face changed?  The ones who had previously seen were temporarily rendered blind to the man who had been born blind and could now see…

Towards the end of John’s gospel someone else is not recognised by someone who knew him well.  This time it is the risen Jesus, who has passed through death and conquered it, who is not recognised by his friend Mary Magdalene.  Is there something about proximity to God’s healing restorative power which renders people unrecognisable, even only for a short moment?

Another thing that comes out of this passage is the growing threat from the pharisees and other Jewish authorities towards Jesus and his followers.  The pharisees interrogate the man born blind twice, and question his parents whom were already in fear of the authorities.  The pharisees openly reviled the disciples of Jesus.  Of course, we know where this rising tension will lead: arrest, interrogation, probable torture and then a brutal death for the healer, the good guy in this story: Jesus himself.

The effect on the cured man is also profound.  Twice before the pharisees he defends Jesus, declaring him a prophet, as one without sin, and one sent from God who obeys God’s will.  Then face-to-face with Jesus and now able to see him (physically) he declares his belief in him and worships him: he now sees beyond Jesus’s face to see who he is spiritually as well.

And being John’s gospel the divinity of Jesus is never far away: the man born blind worships Jesus – he offers to him what should only be offered to God.  He offers to him what he himself had told the pharisees Jesus offers to God, his worship.  The author of this gospel wants to tell his readers that in Jesus he himself has found (and the man born blind has found) more than a teacher, more than a healer, more than a prophet even, more than one sent from God, more than God’s Son even, but God Himself amongst as.  The “Word”, the very essence of God, made flesh who has thrown in his lot with us and pitched his tent in the midst of us.

In the cool of the evening… (John 3:1-17)

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

I’ve heard several explanations for why Nicodemus might have approached Jesus at night – he didn’t want to be seen by his fellow Pharisees; or maybe he thought that was the best time to get to Jesus; perhaps it’s symbolic of the darkness into which Christ’s light shines; maybe simply that the quiet of the night is the best time for deep discussions such as this one.

You can just picture it: Jesus and Nicodemus laid back under a grove of trees, small cups of apple tea to quench their thirst after a hot day, sweet tobacco smoking somewhere quietly behind in a water pipe, the clack-clack of wooden backgammon counters on a board – their fingers kept from idleness.  That’s going a bit far perhaps, but it’s a nice picture.

And in this tranquil scene Nicodemus addresses Jesus as a teacher sent by God.  Jesus gives Nicodemus no time to ask whatever question he might have had prepared.  Hearing a note of flattery in Nicodemus’s voice perhaps Jesus comes straight out with what he must say to Nicodemus “No one can see or enter the kingdom of God without being born from above, without being born of water and Spirit”.

Nicodemus’s question “How can this be?” – the question of Mary Jesus’ mother to the angel – how can this be, how will this happen?  From God, of course from God, who else but from Him – the zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.  Small comfort to Nicodemus, an intelligent man who came to Jesus the teacher and left more confused than he’d ever been before in his life.

It worked out for him I think – in the matter of four short chapters of John’s gospel he is defending Jesus from the other Pharisees, and at the end he helps to lay Jesus’ body in the tomb.

What does it mean to us to be born from above?  To be born from water and the Spirit?  In that dreadfully hackneyed phrase, to be “born again”?  What happens when we go to Jesus by night?  What has He for us?

Prepare to be confused as was Nicodemus.  Pray we may see and enter His kingdom.  Amen.