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You say Goodbye, and I say Hello

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

31 January 2016

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

2

Candlemas 2016

 

Today we celebrate the feast of Candlemas… the moment when the light of the infant Christ lights up the face of the elderly Simeon, the ancient Anna. And they in turn bless the new child. Old and new brought together. You can read this as some theologians have done as the moment when the Old Testament gives way to the New. You can read this a story about the Body of Christ, the church, as three generations come together in the temple and bless each other. Or you can take a leap of faith as I’m about to do and read it as gospel,  or good news,  for those getting on in years. Simeon and Anna are of a great age and they probably thought their story had ended years earlier. Anna in fact had sort of ceased to be a viable citizen in her community’s eyes decades earlier when her husband had died.  No one will have expected Simeon or Anna, these old wrinklies, to feature in the story of the new born King.

And yet they do feature. And very powerfully so. This bit of Luke has so much resonance that the church has decided to remember it every year at the feast of Candlemas. This week all the year 4 school children in the Prince William catchment area will be put on coaches and taken to St Peter’s, Oundle for the annual Candlemas celebration, where the story of Simeon and Anna will be re-enacted by some of them, and handed down to all. For these children this gospel will perhaps speak of the role of their grand and great grandparents in blessing their lives.

As they get older and become parents, grand and then great grandparents themselves, the story will change again. And the older they get the more prominent will become the most famous verse of this passage, verse 29: ‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word’. I quote this in the King James version, because in this version are these words sung every evening by choirs performing the nunc dimittis in cathedrals and churches throughout the land.

It’s beautiful, the nunc, as it’s affectionately known. But it’s also a momento mori – a reminder that we all must depart this life, and it begs the question, what does it take to depart this life in peace, according to thy word?

For Simeon the answer is quite clear. He can depart in peace, because he has now seen Jesus and recognised Jesus as the light of salvation. He has taken this ordinary looking child in his arms, and seen through the swaddling clothes to the blood stained grave clothes which will soon wrap this same body. He has seen beyond the grave clothes to the defeat of death and inauguration of a new Kingdom, God’s Kingdom, which is the Resurrection.

It’s that faith which now lights up Simeon. It’s the faith that realises that God wasn’t kidding when he told Simeon he wouldn’t die until he’d found this salvation and seen the Messiah. Saying hello to this messiah, Simeon realises he can now say goodbye.

Paintings of this moment abound. The most famous perhaps is Rembrandt’s, which I so enjoyed seeing in the flesh in an exhibition a year or two ago. I remember standing in front of it in the national gallery finding myself humming the tune of the Beatles’ song ‘You say goodbye, and I say hello, hello…’

In the Beatles’ song, goodbyes and hellos are at sizes and sevens. The feast of Candlemas  brings them into congruence. Into peace.

And that in a nutshell is what so much of life, and especially so much of old age is all about. Finding ways to keep saying hello, even as we are having to say goodbye. And finding peace even as we depart.

Anyone lucky enough to live to a great age has to say a lot of goodbyes. You ask my 90 year old mother in law how her Christmas was and at some point in her answer she will tell you that she had cards announcing the death of 4 or 5 of friends and worryingly, no Christmas card from another 4 or 5 who she’d expected to hear from.

Some of you have been to so many funerals, you should be training clergy like me how to do them. You know so much about bereavement you could write the book. Some of you are in the process of saying goodbye to bits of your body, and goodbye to bits of your memory. All of us at some point or another have to say goodbye to the illusion of control over our own destiny.

And that is why you who come to church and are amongst us as you age have so much to teach the rest of us. Even when you can no longer make it to church, your legacy lives on. It’s amazing how much Kath Fenn continues to minister to those who care for her, continues to be talked about despite being housebound now for many years. John Craig who many of you will remember sat in that back pew where his daughter Libby now sits – he was a walking sermon, even when he could barely walk. He once told me that the key to keeping your sense of humour as you aged was to live realistically -- not to stir up desire for the things you could no longer have, for things you could no longer do.  And then with a twinkle in his eye he told a few stories about the benefits of loss. He woke one morning to the sound of water plopping into his back room through a burst pipe. There was absolutely nothing he could physically do, so instead of running round trying to find solutions like he would have when he was younger, he just went into the kitchen and had some breakfast.

 

A man who’s doesn’t come to church and has never been to community café came in on Friday to meet with me about something. From the top of the steps there by the door, he looked over the café crowd --  pregnant women, mums holding babies, toddlers rushing around chasing Charlie the dog – over to the tables where people of more advanced years sat chatting away. And his eyes lit up and he said, ‘wow – what a big spread of ages. You hardly ever see that anywhere else. ‘

Well Church is the place where you do see it. According to a recent study, in Britain places of worship, and football stadiums are the two places where the generations are most likely to be found together.

At the beginning of life we offer welcome and nurture; Church is a place where we discover and say hello to all the gifts God has given to us. We say hello to his word for our lives. And we try to find how our lives will take their place in God’s story.

At the end of life, Church should be the place where we learn to depart in peace. As we welcome in the next generation, holding and blessing the babies as many of us do at café here on a Friday, we prepare ourselves to depart in peace. If you’re heading towards the end of life, ask yourself what it would look like for you to depart in peace, according to God’s word. What has God’s word to you been and how have you been part of God’s story? Has his word been fulfilled in you? Or is there still unfinished business? Perhaps  you’re still looking for God’s purpose for your life? Your life might be end loaded of course – like Simeon’s or Anna’s – they had to wait right till the end for the revelation, for their bit in the story. But they were expectant, looking into the eyes of the people they met, and looking into the pages of scripture, for that word.

I remember holding my baby daughter in my arms thinking something along the lines of ‘now I can die in peace, because I’ve replicated myself’. That child is now grown and I know I’ve not replicated myself.  The meaning of my life has many more words in it than her name, important as that is. Life is a long journey to find the words of God which are uniquely spoken to each one of us.

I want to live my life so that I can say with Simeon, ‘let your servant depart in peace and according to your word’. Your word has been fulfilled in me. This is God’s promise to each one of us. We can depart in peace, knowing that we’ve fulfilled some, probably not all, of God’s plans and purposes for our lives. As we celebrate Candlemas this year, 2016, let us remember that good goodbyes begin by saying hello and holding out our arms to the Christ child.

AMEN

 

 

Midnight Mass 2015

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

24/12/15

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

2

Midnight Mass 2015 Sermon

 

 

In an ordinary British house, on an ordinary street, a young boy and girl while away the long dark hours of December.  The lad is face down into an electronic device. The girl, in contrast, looks out through the window at the moon, and curious, she picks up a telescope to look a bit closer.

And thus begins her odd relationship with an old man on the moon, as told by the 2015 John Lewis Christmas advert.  While the Scandi singer croons ‘you’re half a world away’, the single minded child  tries every which way she can to bridge that gap – paper airplanes, a  message wrapped round a homemade arrow.  All the time holding up that telescope to her eye. Finally, after the successful delivery to the moon of a John Lewis parcel, the old man and the child ‘meet’, as they gaze through their respective telescopes, a tear rolling from his eye; hers lit up with the joy of at last making contact.

Inevitably this heart-warming tale of extra-terrestrial connection has prompted a load of spoofs… themselves testimony to the power of the John Lewis marketing department in shaping our Christmas story these days.

With the blasting off of Major Tim Peake, and the return to cinemas of the beloved Force, there is, inevitably, a Star Wars spoof in which the old man is Darth Vadar, fixing his coordinates on the girl and blowing the earth to smithereens.  And there are a few spoofs which reflect our current obsession with historic abuse, asking why, exactly, is that old man on the moon? Perhaps he has ulterior motives? 

The creatives at Aldi must have been waiting with bated breath for the John Lewis advert to air, so that they could spoof it. Their Christmas ad reminds us that a telescope costing £109.95 at John Lewis, is not so astronomically priced at Aldi.

And I like their focus on the telescope, rather than the old man. Because the real mystery is not so much why the man is on the moon, but rather, how is it that this child can come to see him?

How much does the advert’s telescope really cost?

A telescope so powerful that it will draw your eyes away from the all singing all dancing Ipad, and permit you to glimpse the loneliness of another human being?

Loneliness has recently been identified as a major health risk. Equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or being an alcoholic. It’s worse for your health than obesity or taking no exercise.

And yet it’s a very hidden ‘dis-ease’ and one which is all too easy to overlook.

The John Lewis ad, and others this season, such as the C0-0P’s,  pick up on our growing levels of awareness around an epidemic of loneliness, particularly amongst the elderly.

You may have seen the German ad, doing the rounds on social media which sort of brings down to earth the old man in the moon. In this clip an elderly man eats Christmas dinner alone, year after year, whilst his high flying children pursue their careers around the world. ‘The more I did, the less I cared’ sings the English backing track. So one year the aged gentleman sends cards to his children announcing his death and giving a funeral date. And of course as they receive these cards, his family drop everything and return home. Guilt and grief ridden they tentatively open the door to his flat. And find to their great surprise a festive Christmas table laid with candles flickering.  Grandpa pops his head out from the kitchen and enters, beaming, with a platter of turkey.

Watching clips like these, on one’s ipad, it’s easy to somehow be fooled into thinking that we are making a difference to the epidemic of loneliness out there. We press ‘like’ and feel somehow we’ve made a moral difference.  But of course we’ve done nothing to help. In fact we’ve spent time we might have spent with our lonely neighbours face down in a screen. What will prompt us to pick up a metaphorical telescope and look out to the lonely wherever they are, and then to engage in that vigorous and imaginative activity we see modelled by the heroine of John Lewis?

The story we celebrate tonight is the story of a birth into the world of a light so great, so luminous, that seeing, not just believing, but seeing was changed forever. In cultures which required the old to wander off and die of exposure, and the disabled to be similarly abandoned, into many cultures which refused to really see women or small children as fully human, the Christian story shouted ‘Open your eyes’. See that we are all, each and every last one of us, made in God’s image and precious to God from before birth to beyond death.

The three Kings of the story, often pictured with telescopes in hand, learned to look up, and follow the star to a place where they could throw down their old instruments and gaze close into the face of the Christ child as they knelt before him. The Shepherds, guarding their flocks, looking closely at those sheep, were suddenly asked by a host of angels to turn their eyes to the skies. Looking up, they received a message telling them to hasten to Bethlehem. In one nativity play performed here in recent years, the shepherds, like the little John Lewis girl, rode in on scooters, emphasising the momentum created by the joyous Christian message. The power of the Christmas story to encourage us to change our focus, expand our vision, and motivate us to action which brings us closer together.

What did that baby in Bethlehem, so lit up by the star, and the host of angels, and the love of  bewildered parents and shepherds do when he grew up? He went around healing, most often blind people. And talking about how all of us need to open our eyes.  In his famous story about who enters the kingdom of heaven and who does not – the sheep and the goats—he says that the good have fed, clothed and visited Jesus himself, but the bad have not. And when both sheep and goats ask, ‘but when did we see you and feed, clothe or liberate you?’ Jesus replies, ‘Whenever you did these things to the least of your fellow human beings, you did them to me’. Jesus continually taught that the image of God resides in the most isolated, overlooked human beings. His life and his teaching became a telescope through which, if we pick up and use it, we can learn to focus on others and to bring them close.

We may train our telescopes on the night sky, looking for proof of the divine, as did the first astronauts into space. But if we are looking through the lens of Jesus, we will find when we focus that lens, that we are seeing our neighbour. Even those ‘half a world away’.

Why do we need Jesus? Because we cannot buy that kind of telescope at Aldi or even at John Lewis.  The moral telescope which leads us to try to connect with one another. Some of us, perhaps, have inherited one, and we naturally tune into the lost and lonely. But most of us are more like me watching the ads, or that John Lewis brother slouched on the couch,  head down in our own increasingly screen oriented lives.

If we sometimes feel adrift from humankind, as if our digitally filtered life on this planet has deprived us of the brilliance of the night sky, the smell and companionship of mules and horse, the plain food and physical weariness which has characterised the lives of almost all previous generations, we need more than ever the stories of the birth and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The truth of these stories reminds us of the true elements of life. The realities of body and spirit. Our place in the universe, connected to the sheep, the camels, even to the asses, connected  to the spiritual realities personified by the angels, connected to one another across the barriers of gender, race, class, nationality, all of these connected through Jesus , to God.  The stories of Christmas and Easter tell us there is a great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly palpable to human beings. Half a world away a small baby was born in Bethlehem. His story became a telescope through which we are enabled to look out. To look up. To simply see. And to bring others closer.  Why not hold that gift to your eye this Christmas morning? AMEN

 

 

End of life issues on the Feast of St Luke

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

18 October 2015

Book: 

2 Timothy

Chapter: 

4

Feast of St Luke 2015

2 Timothy 4.5-7 and Luke 10.1-9

For me, one of the most poignant bits of the New Testament is the final chapter of 2nd Timothy. The aged St Paul writes this, his final known letter, from Rome, where he is imprisoned and awaiting trial. It is addressed to Timothy ‘my beloved child’ and it’s a letter from an elderly mentor to his young tutee -- lots of advice, seasoned with a fair bit of grumpiness and overly conservative points of view.  Paul ends it by twice urging Timothy to ‘come before winter’ if at possible. ‘Come before winter’ – I’d like to see you one last time. These are the words of a man who has almost finished his race. At the end of life many of us hope to be able to say those the words we’ve heard read this morning:  ‘I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.’

I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of life over past few weeks as our 15 old dog begins his final descent.  I watch my little fluffy Zebedee, who has always behaved so youthfully, now staggering around, his back legs collapsing when he tries to turn. He has to wee like a girl now, and sometimes he just stands and shakes, despite all the painkillers he’s on.  Those of you who’ve loved dogs will well understand my dilemma. What do we do with an old dog who has no sense of time, no unfinished business, no one to urge to ‘come before winter’ – though we did urge our grown up daughter to come home this weekend just in case. As a society we’ve kind of accepted that the responsible dog owner will decide when the dog’s had enough, and call in the vet with the lethal syringe. But this is a truly terrible responsibility.

I wonder how long it will be before the responsibility for determining the exact moment of death is taken away from ‘nature’ and given to those who care for suffering humans? Because of course there are many in our society who think, and even cry with far better reason than I did once when suffering from acute food poisoning, ‘If I were a dog,  someone would put me out of this misery’.

On this healthcare Sunday, as we read the final words of St Paul, and remember the work of the physician evangelist St Luke, let’s spend a moment reflecting on end of life issues, for  more and more I hear people clamouring for the ‘right to die’

The generation who came of age in the 1960’s and who have won rights to end unwanted pregnancies, to have sexual relationships with whoever they want, to change their gender or the shape of any body part on demand, will no doubt be most vociferous in their demands to choose the time and manor of their death. Liz Kendall the Labour leadership candidate recently compared the question of assisted suicide to other issues of control over one’s own body, and declared for a change in the law.

Those pushing a change in the law do so in the name of compassion, and ‘religious people’ who demur are depicted as harsh and cruel. One columnist recently wrote that Christians are those fascinated by a man suffering on a cross, and have no right to impose their morbid ideas about redemptive suffering on others. For a moment that might seem a plausible accusation, but let’s look at where the followers of Christ have gone after looking carefully at that man on a cross.

Almost without fail, they have gone into the business of alleviating suffering, and the feast of St Luke’s offers a chance to reflect on that remarkable aspect of our religious history. Wherever Christians have taken the gospel, they have followed the example of those first 70 sent out by Jesus and have accompanied their message with the healing of the sick. Christians have founded a great many of the world’s hospitals and medical charities. Today it will often be people motivated either by an active Christian faith, or by an attitude towards suffering shaped by centuries of Christian teaching, who are providing healthcare in the most dangerous and deprived parts of the world. Even the aetheist columnist Matthew Parris was forced to admit as much as he travelled around the poorest parts of Africa.

And Britain’s hospice movement, the envy of many other countries, sprang of course from the Christian faith of Dame Cicely Saunders and others. Far from wanting to rejoice in suffering, Christians have been at the forefront of alleviating it. And we need to make sure that we are still there, supporting especially the work of the hospices, and all the various homes for those who cannot live independently. On this day we give thanks for those many Christians who have followed in the footsteps of the Great Physician Jesus Christ, and one of his early followers, the physician St Luke. I would imagine that most of you here today will have motivated by your faith to alleviate suffering – at least a few times. For some of you that motivation will have determined the shape of your whole life.

Christian ideas about the importance of each human life have led the development of healthcare for centuries. Two more recent forces, however, threaten to dismantle this ethic.

The first is a technological quest unbridled by wisdom. This is the force that keeps people alive when they would naturally die, so that the sufferings of old age are now much extended.  Scientists have recently boasted that they will be able to keep those born today going for about 140 years. Of course when people have no concept of an afterlife, the quest to extend this life as far as possible makes a certain kind of grim sense.

But a second cultural force cuts across that quest, and this is the need to measure everything, including human life, in concrete terms. How much is life worth to a person who has dementia, we ask? How about to a person suffering from a disability or from depression? We know how much it costs to treat those who suffer from these things. If we can somehow identify the moment when the balance tips – when the value of life drops below our calculation of cost – then we can intervene with a syringe of poison. These two forces, one keeping people alive much longer than naturally possible, and the other seeking to end life when it starts to drain our resources are creating the perfect storm in which euthanasia becomes a sensible option.

But as I watch Zebedee decline, I realise how very difficult it is to know when enough is enough.  In the morning, when he’s enjoying  his breakfast and wagging his tail,  I think certainly not today. By evening when his legs are giving out every few steps I am thinking this is intolerable. The decision is weighing heavily and my relationship with my beloved dog changing because I now hold the power of life and death over him. I also realise how selfish concerns inevitably creep into the decision to ‘do what’s best for Zebedee’. Could we hold off till Philip gets back from sabbatical so that I can have a day or two off to grieve? Or should we do it over half term, when my husband is off work? Can we find a day when our daughter can be there too?

I can’t imagine what it would be like to make this decision for one’s parents, or one’s disabled child, when money and time and unsettled scores and the logistics of getting everyone who needs to say goodbye together before administering that lethal dose would bear much more heavily.

Once we have the right to choose death even just for ourselves, unbearably selfish desires are bound to affect that choice. This is why arguments against assisted suicide always make the slippery slope argument. No one likes suffering. It’s costly and time consuming both for the person undergoing it, and those trying to help. But do we really want a world where all suffering is avoided by lethal injections? And if not, where on that slippery slope would you draw the line? And who in practice would draw that line?

Reportedly a Dutch ethicist, having seen what has happened in his native Holland since assisted suicide was legalised has told the House of Lords, ‘Don’t do it Britain… some slopes are truly slippery’.

The laws governing assisted suicide and euthanasia matter to each one of us because evidence shows that in places where this is legalised – Oregon, Holland, Belgium – palliative care suffers. Britain was recently voted the best country in which to die, because of our extensive network of hospice care. But most of that top quality palliative care is funded by charitable donations. Can you imagine how funding would dry up once lethal injection was established as an accepted alternative? Can you imagine how much the strapped NHS would save if they could end the life of anyone who considered suicide? And then, eventually, anyone who couldn’t speak for themselves but whose quality of life was deemed low enough?  At the end of the slippery slope, those choosing the right to die naturally would be seen to be foolish… time wasters and bed blockers.

Pope Francis has warned that assisted suicide gives us a false sense of compassion. Real compassion, real following in the footsteps of Jesus, of St Luke, and of St Paul, means surrounding those who suffer with love and good palliative care, so that each of us can fight that last fight with courage, finish the race, and keep hold of faith, rather than giving into the despair which will tempt us all at one time or another.

Douglas Murray, writing on this issue in the Spectator, reminds us of the character Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Blinded and having already failed to kill himself once, the aged Gloucester, in the penultimate scene of the play, when the battle has been lost,  insists that he can travel no further. Edgar urges him on with these memorable words:  ‘men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all. Come on’.   Gloucester lives for only a few more minutes, but the moments he has left, after he is persuaded to journey on, turn out to include that moment in which he discovers the truth about everything.

Contemporary Challenges

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

4th October 2015

Book: 

Mark

Chapter: 

10

Pope Francis’ little Fiat in the White House motorcade dramatically expressed the counter-cultural Christian principles he brings to the world’s attention.  He represents the western churches’ recovering confidence in the basic Jesus Way.  It is the proper role of church leaders to assert Christian principles strongly.  We foot-soldiers have to apply the practical consequences, using our individual consciences and our influence in local political processes.      

Arguments about practical application are evident throughout the history of both Bible and Church.  In our Gospel reading about Divorce, set against contemporary Jewish practice of the husband’s unilateral right to end a marriage, Jesus’ starting-point is a plainly-stated principle.  St. Paul [1 Cor. 7:10-16] and St. Matthew [5:32; 19:3-12], extend the discussion in their versions of what Jesus said. Currently, in both the Roman and the Anglican worldwide Communions there are forceful arguments about practical applications of the principle.

The Pope has recently highlighted current challenges, such as Climate Change, Economic Injustice, and Refugees, and asserted relevant Christian principles.  Taking the perplexing challenge of refugees, let’s use today’s Biblical Lessons to highlight a fundamental principle which we should apply.

Today’s OT Lesson is from the Jewish Book of Beginnings, or Genesis [2:18-24]. This collection of writings established the basis of Jewish religion, using merely as vehicles pre-scientific stories told in other communities for the Jews different understanding of humanity’s purposeful relationships with God. Struggling to establish unintended scientific consistency wastes time when we should be grasping Genesis’ life-giving insights.

Genesis insists that the underlying reality of God’s heavenly kingdom is in great shape. It is our job to bring into line what is here on earth, as our Lord’s Prayer reminds us!  Humanity is represented in the Creation stories by Adam and Eve. Each person is individually created, but Genesis describes the co-operative arrangements we individuals must establish – marriage, languages, nationalities, work, etc – to enable us to live individually alongside each other.

In a world dominated by other priorities, Jewish leaders rejected the self-centred focus of neighbouring tribes and their local gods.  Despite some dodgy episodes, the insignificant Jews accepted responsibility for showing other people how to live in the only reality of one God.

The OT is culturally remote from us, but we can absorb its ancient wisdom by following the Jesus tradition.  Our Epistle reading, originally addressed to Jewish Christians, [Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12] puts it succinctly: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways …, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”  The Gospel writers, familiar with the OT, show Jesus as the embodiment of the Jewish God.   Again, it is an individual, Jesus, and his involvement with others, that is significant.

The dominant Biblical principle, therefore, is that each individual, of any race or creed, matters to God and is accountable to God.  Archbishop Rowan Williams wrote: “Calling the Church ‘Catholic’ is a matter of grasping that it teaches the whole truth in a way that involves the whole person and is addressed to the whole of humanity.” Despite this Christian Catholicity, we retreat so readily into the comfort zone of familiar groups – our locality, our nation, our religious sect. Biblical charity may properly begin at home, but it never ends there.

William Tyndale expressed this principle less abstractly in the prologue to his 1526 translation of the NT: “‘Gospel’ is a word that signifies good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, … makes us sing, dance and leap for joy.”  In conversations and donations we, as individuals, can enjoy promoting such tidings but, in this desperate refugee situation, surely this church community can collate our individual efforts into a more effective, collective response.  

The World Council of Churches has asked member churches “for both humanitarian support and advocacy with governments”.  Both the Pope and Archbishop Welby, whilst pressing Governments, are also taking in Syrian refugees.  Where refugees are in Europe already, local churches are providing emergency aid, such as baby bath centres, medical services, water, food and clothing, induction and language courses, in railway stations, camps and transit zones.  What can we do?

If we are to play our part in confronting this and today’s other urgencies wemust think and confer together.  When a university committee faced a financial crisis 100 years ago, all except one member complained how terrible the situation was, but made no practical suggestions. The silent one was Ernest Rutherford, the father of modern physics.  When pressed, he eventually said “We must sit and think”! Remember what Jesus said about assessing the cost before building a tower [Luke 14:28-30].

In our individual thinking, we should first reconnect ourselves to our faith.  Bernard of Clairvaux, a thousand years ago, asked activists: “How long can you give everyone else your attention – but not give yourself any?…  ” 

How sure are we that Jesus was right about the nature of reality? Can we develop habits of useful contemplation about life?  How can our Church better help our thinking? Whom can we ask for guidance and encouragement?  What are fellow-Christians saying and doing?

What alliances can we make? Jesus chose a remarkable assortment of allies. What positive principles can we confidently articulate, to share with each other, and with Jews, Muslims, people of other faiths and none, whose outwardly different traditions often inwardly encourage the same divine principles as our own? The inefficiency of thoughtless religious monopoly is in addition to its false comforts! Birmingham churches are linking with a secular civic organisation to provide a better response to this refugee catastrophe.

Some institutional religious co-operation is already emerging.  The Council of Christians and Jews is currently focussing on the forcible removal of Christians from the faith’s Middle Eastern place of origin.  At the start of the 20th century, roughly 20% of the Middle Eastern population were Christians; today it is around 5%.  In 1987, 1.4M Christians lived in Iraq; now it is only around 300k.   In Syria, around 700k Christian refugees have fled from ISIL.  In the camps surrounding the war zones, around 40% of refugees are Christians.   

The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, has said: “Peace is the ultimate hope of monotheism, with its belief that the world is the product of a single will, not the blind clash of conflicting enemies.”

Many refugees are Muslim.  Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are mono-theists too, sharing our roots in the OT.  There are many Muslims in nearby Peterborough at various stages of integration into English life.  Exploring what unites us through practical responses to human need seems a far better way of reaching mutual and enjoyable understanding than the present cultural stand-off.  As Mrs Merkel has said to those worried about the Islamicisation of Europe: the best answer is to practise the Christian faith!  

We are a small village; perhaps we think we can do very little.  Hear what has happened in an isolated Swedish village less than half the size of Cliffe, and the home of a friend.  There is one small church congregation.  In 2011, the immigration authority placed nine asylum-seeking families there whilst permission to stay was considered.  Most had been city dwellers; all of them were exhausted.  They had temporary accommodation in vacant flats called ’Legoland’, that no one else wanted.   

At a village meeting, the Local Authority representative described the refugees’ needs, such as winter clothing, but also a place to meet.  The congregation created the equivalent of our Friday cafe which, as time has passed, has welcomed families from Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria and Ukraine.  Some have been returned to their country of origin, others granted permits to stay.  Through all the relief and pain of arriving and leaving, the warm hospitality has continued, both asylum seekers and volunteers discovering the individual in each other.  

During term time retired teachers give the adults informal Swedish language lessons.  There is football training in the village Sports Hall for children over ten and their fathers.  Help is given by a retired farmer, a former Chairman of the Parish Council, using his laptop to process translations of official documents from schools, doctors, lawyers, and the immigration authority.  A pregnant woman was taken by car, with her husband, to a town hospital - where the baby was safely delivered.  On the way home the thankful father, a Muslim, asked to be taken first to the Church, to offer his thanksgiving prayers. 

The team of volunteers has grown; goodwill and generosity in the wider community increases.  Last July there was a party to celebrate four years of hospitality and hard work.  ”We have met people of other faiths and cultures” says the church’s leader, ”we are learning to accept each other, we like each other, ... For us life has become more meaningful.”  

Tyndale was right.  “‘Gospel’ is a word that signifies good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that makes the heart glad, and makes us sing, dance and leap for joy.” As major challenges confront us, what are we waiting for?

How can faith inform our response to the migration crisis?

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

6 September 2015

Book: 

Mark

Chapter: 

7

Trinity 14, Proper 18B

Benefice Service KC 2015

Readings:

Psalm 146; James 2:1-10; 14-17; Mark 7:24-end

 

Writing in the Spectator this week the columnist Matthew Paris complains that Christianity is no help at all in his moral dilemma of what to do about the migrant crisis. He wants to know what his duty is in this situation and for whom he is responsible.  Family, friends, community, nation, anyone of any nation photographed by our media, everyone everywhere in need? Where do we stop responding?

I wonder how you’ve responded to the biggest news story of this week, of this summer. What do you think, what do you do when you see pictures of floating bodies, upturned dinghys, and crowds of desperate folk? Did that response change when you saw the small body of Aylan Kurdi? And has your Christian faith informed how you respond, emotionally, politically, practically to the current crisis?

Perhaps your response has been something like mine… At first, as news broke of record numbers of people trafficked across the ocean from Libya to Italy, I felt concern and distress, but very much pushed the problem into the realm of ‘things so big that governments must deal with them’.  And the primary emotion I felt was anger. Why were European leaders so weak and pathetic? And why were Britain’s leaders simply shrugging, noting that we’re not part of Schengen, and sending more armed men to Calais?

If you’re like me you didn’t actually need to see a photo of a drowned toddler to tell you there was a problem.  But the problem seems so overwhelming. When I’ve seriously considered the complexity of trying to save desperate people without encouraging millions more to migrate, I honestly want to put my fingers in my ears and go ‘la la la’; I feel deaf and I feel mute. What can I say, what can I do? The situation is so complicated, and responses that are both wise and compassionate, so hard to come by.

But this week I have had to grapple with Mark Chapter 7, which was assigned to this Sunday about 50 years ago by some big post Vatican II committee of Catholics, then tweaked by a huge committee of Protestants.  Most of the church in Europe, the US and Canada will be preaching on this text today.  That is a rather extraordinary coincidence. And I do think this gospel speaks to the questions Matthew Paris asks -- though he is unlikely to hear my sermon or any others as he’s an atheist who presumably doesn’t attend church. This scripture does offer a uniquely Christian perspective on how to discern our moral duty in extraordinary circumstances.

The reading today features a woman from the precise area now flooded with refugees; the region of Tyre, in modern Lebanon. She is a Syrophoenecian -- the ethnic ancestor of today’s Syrians and she is asking for crumbs from the table. And then there’s the deaf and mute man from Sidon, also in Lebanon. His ears and mouth are closed. Jesus puts his fingers into his ears and says the opposite of ‘la la la la’ He says:  ‘Ephphatha’ -- which translates as ‘be opened’.

Two stories from the region which is so troubled today. And two unusual phrases to guide us as we construct a moral response.

The Syrophoenician woman has the unique honour of being the only person in scripture to ostensibly change Jesus’ mind. Their conversation goes to the very heart of the questions Matthew Paris asks in his column. She is a pagan, a wealthy pagan, and doesn’t fall into the brief which Jesus thinks he has. He has come to minister to the Jews and to the poor. He has travelled to the foreign region of Tyre, it seems, to recover from the ardours of his peripatetic ministry. He’s on holiday, perhaps with dark sunspecs in some kind of disguise. The text says that he did not want anyone to know that he was there. This desperate mother, however, somehow gets wind of his presence, runs and bows at his feet, begging him to deliver her little daughter from an unclean spirit.

The astonishing thing about this story is that Jesus does not react with the compassion we see everywhere else in the gospels. He basically says no, and compares her to a dog. He invokes the idea of scarcity and fairness. It’s not fair to take the children’s food he says and throw it to the dogs.

Now this kind of thinking is completely familiar to me, for I too often refer to scarcity and fairness when considering whether or how to help.  I don’t have enough to go around. If I do this for you, it’s only fair to do for everyone. I can’t make an exception or I’ll be overwhelmed.

Personally I’m relieved as I look at today’s scripture to see that Jesus understands this mentality. Because it’s my mentality. I need to conserve my energies for those I’m called to serve, so if you don’t live within one of my parishes, forget it.

But look says the woman, I’m only asking for crumbs. Every dog lover knows that dogs sit in perpetual hope under a table, and as long as they don’t whine too much, we don’t really mind. The famous prayer of humble access has cast centuries of British Christians as dogs or syrophronecian women.  In this much loved prayer from the Prayer Book which has survived into the modern service we insist that ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table, but you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy.’

I honestly think that it is this idea of crumbs under the table which meant that all the revisions of the prayer book have kept this prayer since 1662. Because this is an extraordinary idea.

Many in our saturated society will be offended by the idea of getting only the crumbs. They want to tuck into the meat and all the trimmings, a selection of puds. Givers are criticised for offering only the crumbs under their table, when what those in need need is more and more and more.

Yet it is this idea, the crumbs thrown to the dogs, that changes Jesus’ mind and can allow us to consider how we might care for those beyond our immediate community. The fact is that most of us consume our resources as if we have none to spare. We shovel in our food and count out our money carefully, making no mess. Nothing left over for others to use or potentially exploit. We are governed by strict internal logic about scarcity and fairness. And we make no room for grace. We live our lives to the full so that we have no margins of free time, and no extra in the bank.

In the Old Testament, careful laws were laid out to ensure that people left some crumbs for others. Tithing, or giving ten percent of everything you earnt or produced meant that Israelites could not totally consume their own resources. 10 percent is the crumbs from your table. It’s the amount which ensures you are never enslaved to your possessions. There were also rules in the Old Testament about leaving a margin of unharvested crop around the edges of your field, so that the poor could go and glean some food for themselves. My modern version of this is to throw a few cans of food for our food bank into every shopping trolley of food I buy. Crumbs from my table. But crumbs which combined with crumbs from your table and your table are feeding the hungry of Kings Cliffe.

In the prayer of Humble Access we affirm that none of us are worthy to gather up the crumbs under God’s table, yet because of his great mercy we are invited to feed on the body and blood of Jesus. And really we only get a little crumb of food in communion, and perhaps a crumb of comfort or inspiration from a line of a hymn, or a word in a prayer that seems to jump out at us.

But these are powerful crumbs, powerful even for those outside the church, who don’t take part in the feast of the Eucharist.  Our villages have more goodness in them, and everyone’s children grow up with ideas about love and forgiveness and grace which they would never enjoy in a purely secular culture. The crumbs from God’s table cascade down and become seeds of the kingdom of Heaven.

This idea of leaving crumbs for those others who are not feasting at our table is central to the question of how to care for those beyond our inner circle.

But there’s more. Mark’s story gives us another strange phrase to consider – the onomatopoetic word, untranslated – Ephphatha. We don’t know if it was an Aramaic word, or indigenous to the region of Sidon in which Jesus encountered the man who was deaf and mute. But the gospel writer leaves it in the vernacular, rather than translating it into Greek.

It’s important I think to note the detail that Jesus took the man away from his friends and healed him in private. This is a recurring pattern in Jesus’ ministry. He prefers to help people in private and then tells them to keep it quiet. His own life was under constant threat and every time he healed someone he gave his enemies more ammunition. But this quiet goodness has something crucial to say to us today. Jesus took the polar opposite approach to our contemporary obsession with sharing everything we’ve done or ‘liked’ on Facebook or other social media. He did not take his moral cues from internet petitions, public opinion polls or a Twitter feed. He was the very opposite of today’s moralists who surf the waves of public opinion, saying all the right things, rarely doing anything costly.

In this story he puts his fingers into the man’s ears, on his tongue. He looks up to Heaven, and sighs, as if realising the cost of healing this foreign man, and he says ‘Be Opened’. Now can we take this phrase into our moral response to an unprecedented migration of peoples into Europe? I’m not convinced that we can translate Ephphatha to mean no border controls. But it is certainly a rebuke to me when I put my fingers in my ears, metaphorically, and sing ‘la la la la ‘. It’s a command to use my senses to take in the needs of the world, and to speak and act in response. But more importantly, it’s a command to be open to the Spirit of God, so that I can hear and respond to God’s voice.

 

The Christian message to a world wondering how to respond to any complex issue is this; Let crumbs fall from your table, and then be open to the Spirit’s leading. That means creative, individual responses, rather than a one size fits all formula about how to help. Christianity is frustrating that way. It doesn’t specify an exact amount of time and money to give away –but it does give us guidance in how to find our own response. In this Chapter 7 of Mark’s gospel, we see Jesus leading us towards a sustainable way of being full of mercy. Jesus did not abandon the focus on Israel and go whizzing around the whole world with his message. He did not spend all his time healing and feeding the hungry, which must have been really annoying to those left unhealed and unfed. But Jesus was modelling to us how to live a good life. This included frequent breaks from activity, times of prayer and refreshment, good times with his friends, parties, dinners, fishing. Even foreign holidays.

But always a nature full of mercy, an openness to the world, even to change, and always crumbs under his table.

When you realise that you only have to offer a crumb to the world’s problems, not a full blown 5 course solution, you will be free to allow the spirit to lead you in response. As today’s reading from the epistle of James reminds us, faith without works is dead. But when faith gets working, people really come alive.  Yesterday I noticed an extraordinary thing on my facebook feed. Whereas usually my friends are posting about their holidays and their cats, their special nights out and thoughts on the labour party leadership election, yesterday there was a steady stream of ideas… ideas of how we might respond to the crisis in migration. A woman vicar rejoiced that her ‘Project Paddington’ to send teddy bears to refugee children has suddenly taken off and schools all over the country are pledging support. A Vicar’s 5 year old daughter posted a letter to Justin Welby asking if the church could use their house for refugees when they move out in a few months’ times. A move to offer refugees Air B and B places was online. Another friend posted the idea of offering refuge to healthcare professionals who would pledge 5 years’ service to the NHS. And others were offering their church communities, even their own homes to refugees. There’s a lot of hope out there – hope that we can actually be part of a solution to an overwhelming problem. We may not have all the answers, but our crumbs are valuable. Backed up by dogged determination, we can release the unclean spirits. What would it do for worldwide Christian Muslim relations, so troubled at the moment, if Christians were to lead a European wide effort to welcome Muslim refugees onto our shores and into our church communities?  How might that transform our sense of identity as a nation, and as a European union? In a country struggling to articulate what it is to be British, we could become a people whose nature is always to have mercy. A people whose faith is not dead, but is working proof that the Jesus who met the Syrian woman 2000 years ago, is still responding compassionately to her plight. Think of the hope for the whole world we could inspire if we would commit to an active, intelligent and creative response to the situation we now find ourselves in.  ‘Ephphatha’ Jesus says, I believe, to each of us today. ‘Be opened.’

AMEN

'What is a Parable?' Mark 4

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

14th June 2015

Book: 

Mark

Chapter: 

4

What is a Parable?

Mark Chapter 4

 

A parable is like a rugby ball moving across a back line. Someone picks up a little story, runs a little way with it, and passes it out to the side. The next person picks it up, runs, all the while trying to make progress down the field. As it travels it gathers interpretations, it’s been touched by many hands.

So many times in scripture we see Jesus in front of a large crowd, throwing out parables. This 4th Chapter of Mark begins with the one about the sower, and the seeds going on rocky ground, thorny ground and so forth. There’s a little break in the chapter where he calls a scrum and explains to his closest disciples what the story means. Then the ball is back in play and finally we get the two parables read this morning – the growing seed and the mustard seed. The chapter ends by saying that Jesus never spoke to crowds except in parables. That was his game.

That might have been his game, but to us the word ‘parable’ sounds a bit foreign. In fact it is foreign. We don’t have a comparable word in English. Parable is from the Greek para (alongside) and ballo (to throw). Parables are stories thrown alongside our lives. We are encouraged to pick them up, run with them, see where they will take us.

And today it’s my turn to pick up the paraball, and try not to fumble it, or kick it into touch.

Now I have lived and worked in schools for 28 years and have spent a considerable amount of time watching rugby, a game I still don’t completely understand. So I have no idea whether the rugby analogies I’ve  just used make total sense. But I don’t care too much, because that’s kind of the spirit of parables– they don’t hook neatly into any total interpretation or even analogy. They tease us a bit. The idea I think is to get us moving, to invite us into the game… Stories thrown in alongside our lives…. Not stories that tell us exactly what to do.

Which is really hard for those of us looking to the Bible to find all the answers and a complete map of the kingdom of God.

Instead what we find is the encouragement that, even when we can’t see it, something supernatural  is happening. God is on the move, we are in the game, there will be a triumph eventually because  growth is all around us….

But growth is hard to pin down. It happens at different rates and in different ways.  A person plants a seed. How they want it to grow. But can they micromanage that? No they can’t . They can only sleep and rise, sleep and rise, and wait. Low and behold, the seed which they cannot see becomes a seedling. The earth seemingly produces of itself … First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear….It’s a mystery we celebrate in those songs of harvest. Every parent finds out this truth. There are lots of obvious ways we can stunt our children’s growth (as the parable of the sower suggests) but cultivating growth is more mysterious. We watch carefully and occasionally need to water or prune, but the urge to grow and develop – that momentum – is inside each human being just as it is inside each plant. When we apply this insight to the Kingdom of God, as Jesus did, perhaps we conclude that God is the principle of growth towards goodness in the world; our job is to work with God, not to make everything happen out of our own energies.

The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that, furthermore, each kind of seed tells a different kind of story about growth. The mustard seed is absolutely tiny yet grows into a whacking great bush. Interestingly Matthew and Luke when they tell this parable, upgrade the bush into a tree, to fit in better with the fact that Jesus is obviously referring back to the Ezekiel passage which was also read this morning. But whether it becomes a mustard bush, or a noble cedar, each seed can bear some kind of fruit or another and become a place where birds take refuge. In the diversity of the plants around us, and the astonishingly different ways in which they grow, bud, leaf, fruit and provide shelter, we can read a whole host of parables about how human growth takes place.

A local Headmaster (actually my husband) once received a letter from a parent of a lower sixth boy which made precisely this connection.

“It can be frustrating,” this parent wrote, “trying to get through to boys of sixteen, and at times it seems as if they have fallen into a deep sleep (like the princess of the fairy tale), with progress all but invisible and certainly unmeasurable. But it would be wrong to suppose that growth isn’t taking place underneath – I certainly sense this subterranean blossoming in my son, even though he is young for his year and, on the surface, might seem to lack the maturity of his peers.”   “The picture can in fact be downright misleading, as there is little sense of what is taking shape on the level of the soul. The example of the Chinese bamboo plant is perhaps apposite here. Once the seed is planted and the tiny shoot appears above the soil, nothing happens for the next four years, or at least nothing appears to happen. All along, however, the plant has been laying down an extensive root system, so that in the fifth year it can grow up to three feet a day until it reaches ninety feet in height! I like to think my son has laid down an extensive root system which will stand him in good stead once he leaves school. He may even end up imitating the bamboo plant and suddenly reveal himself (hopefully not quite so drastically) in his fifth and final year!.”

We sleep and rise – or as new parents fail to sleep and rise, and we watch the next generation grow. We look at ourselves in the mirror, barely recognising the person who has lived fruitfully for many years, lines on our faces witnessing to the cost and the joy.  (The Psalm this morning you may have noticed promises growth that goes on well into old age: in old age the righteous still bear fruit, they are green and full of sap!)  We sleep and  we rise – this was the ancient Hebrew way of counting times in terms of ‘sleeps’. ‘There was morning and there was evening, intones Genesis 1, ‘and God saw that it was good’. We know now that through those millions of years of creation, things changed incredibly slowly.  But grow and develop they did, into a natural world of the most astonishing beauty. And our job is to try to get out of the way, so that we don’t destroy it.

At the heart of the Kingdom of God is a relentless momentum towards growth. We can trust that if we do not snatch the seed away, put rocks in its way, or overpower it with weeds, it will grow. We can trust the work of God in ourselves, in the natural world and in others. As gardeners in his Kingdom, our job is simply to remove the impediments. And to take heart from the parables being thrown alongside us. Out of the corners of our eyes we see them in the stories told by cedar trees and grains of wheat. Out of the corners of our ears, whispers of encouragement from the Creator.  We do have a job to do in this kingdom  – that plant needs some water, some weeding, that one needs a bit more support. We are promised a great Poldark moment, when we throw off our shirts and begin to scythe. The harvest will finally be ready. The promise fulfilled.

And on that image let us end and say AMEN.

 

 

 

 

'Facing Reality': Trinity 4

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

28 June 2015

Book: 

Mark

Chapter: 

5

King’s Cliffe and Laxton, 28th June 2015 

FACING REALITY

Recent media reports have caused me to realise that an active belief in ‘God’ is widely regarded as the product of a surviving minority’s imagination in this country, and elsewhere of madmen.  A journalist, regretting the neglect of beautiful churches because of rural congregational decline, barely mentioned their original function of divine worship; another, recalling her boredom in school worship, casually commented that schools could do interesting and stimulating things instead.  Do we who worship live in the real world?

British public religiosity is declining fast.  As a boy, I thought everyone had a church they at least stayed away from!  Grandma told us that when she was a girl she took turns with her sisters to boil their father’s treat of a Sunday breakfast egg, the cook being awarded its top for a good result.  There was no clock available, but Grandma found perfect timing resulted from singing three verses of “Onward, Christian Soldiers”.  How many people today could sing three verses of any hymn?  Nowadays ‘God’ is addressed with great reverence religiously, but not otherwise. Why is this?  

One reason is that increasing scientific knowledge about physical realities conflicts with traditional religious formulations, provoking popular revulsion.  A Cambridge Physics Professor, a Christian, recently explained that micro-technology not only offers solutions to problems like climate change and water scarcity, but also enables exploration of life’s origins.  He asked if faith communities would regard this as a threat to the traditional explanations in sacred texts.    

A medical student, from a very traditional Christian family, told me how the clash between professional knowledge and religious dogma, like the ‘Virgin Birth’, troubled her.  We should not be surprised that many people superficially regard religious language as meaningless!  Certainly I often have questions and reservations.

Reason sits alongside Scripture, Tradition and Experience as one of the Church’s sources of God’s silent self-revelation.    St. Peter challenged us to give reason for the hope that is within us.  Our Scripture argues within itself.  The NT tells of structured religious argument between real people: e.g. Jesus with Sadducees and Pharisees, Paul with apostles, synagogues and philosophers.  Jesus commended loving God with all our mind, and the alleged rivalry with Science is increasingly causing concerned Christians to present a reasoned explanation of their faith. 

In 1798 Joseph Haydn, inspired by his amazement on looking through the Astronomer-Royal’s telescope, composed his famous oratorio “Creation”, using creation stories from “Paradise Lost” and Genesis.  Recently a poet, a composer and a scientist from the European Nuclear Research Centre, using today’s understanding of Creation, have produced a biblically-based ‘Creation’ oratorio in accessible 21st century language. 

A recent book, “True Scientists, True Faith” [Lion Hudson] contains 20 articles by prominent scientists reasoning why they find no incompatibility between being a Christian and being a scientist.  The physical universe does not follow the arbitrary decisions of a pagan ‘god’ or ‘gods’, despite popular superstition.  That is not how Jesus regarded God!

A second reason for ignoring ‘God’ is that many people claim they accept Jesus’ morality, but they don’t see ‘God’ as relevant, even if He really exists, so attending church services is pointless. They rightly argue that God’s existence cannot be conclusively demonstrated by rationality, that much church activity is about unimportant, secondary issues like internal governance, that religion is the cause of much violence, as with Islamic extremists at present [but there is no lack of Christian precedents], and that societies expressly ruled religiously are far from conspicuously successful.  People rightly say ‘You can be generous without bringing ‘God’ into it’, and avoid a lot of trouble.  How do we answer that?     

‘God’ is a name conveniently borrowed from paganism, where many recognisable ‘gods’ are believed to govern people’s self-centred priorities.  St. Thomas Aquinas said: “We know God only from his effects.”  Christians choose to believe that Jesus’ life is the divine effect that principally demonstrates the reality “in which we live, and move, and have our being”, and Jesus used the word “Father”, an obviously second-hand word ripped out of its normal context, to teach about this indescribable foundational reality we call ‘God’.  

Jesus lived, and died, confident that this foundational reality, the Father, loves him and us, emphasising our personal relationship with this reality.  Because foundational reality ‘fathers’ everyone, everyone is therefore valuable, Love’s unconquerable reality bringing order into the chaos around us.  Because Jesus invited his followers into this boundless reality of energy we worship “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.  

Jesus accepted that crucifixion would inevitably follow his confident living in the Father.  In the reality of his Father’s all-embracing kingdom, physical death is an incident, not an ending.  Jesus’ confidence is the basis of our faith, hence we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”  Do we think Jesus was naïve, or realistic?    

TV has shown us the Charleston mourners movingly forgiving the murderer of their loved ones.  Their acting pastor said: “A lot of folk expected us to do something strange and … riot.  … [W]e are a people of faith and we believe that when we put our … heads together working for a common good there is nothing that we cannot accomplish in the name of Jesus.”   Is this attitude naïve, or penetratingly realistic?   

Trusting Jesus’ analysis, that reality is like a Father, we are delivered from evil, including out-of-date religiosity.  We know God loves us when our living has ignored his reality; concern for others becomes comprehensive; prayer becomes a search for what we should do or accept in the light of God’s love, like Jesus in Gethsemane, instead of boring holy words,    

We must therefore challenge contemporary culture to see our faith not as a problem but as providing realistic solutions for the world’s ills.  The Pope’s recent wake-up call is not just about environmental threats, but a challenge to everyone to live both individually and collectively in ways that value the reality of our common home.  Christians are not a narrow religious club with its own tame ‘God’.  God’s people lack precise definition because God’s reality is without limit.   

So we can welcome as fellow-workers all who in practice follow Jesus’ realistic analysis.  A 43 year old Muslim policeman was head of the only bomb disposal unit in northern Gaza, protecting several hundred thousand people from unexploded ordnance.  His protective clothing and tools were worn out.  Dressed in ordinary clothes, using ordinary screwdrivers and pliers, he was killed whilst defusing an unexploded bomb.  Aspects of his religious tradition differ from ours, but if we focus on Jesus’ understanding of reality we find ourselves at one with this Jesus-like, selfless courage.

Today’s Gospel reading [Mark 5: 21 – 43] was written by and for people with different cultural perceptions about illness and, written now, it would describe the psychosomatic background differently.  The Gospel writers selected individual examples to illustrate Jesus’ concern to heal and transform real individuals “on earth as it is in heaven”, rather than proclaim abstract doctrines which ask almost nothing of our personal conduct. 

Jesus found ‘God’ in the concrete realities of everyday relationships, constantly responding to anyone in need.  God’s Kingdom, Jesus said, is “at hand”, found in the mechanics of life rather than in metaphysics.  Today we heard about Jesus strengthening people snubbed by social custom - an apparent corpse and a woman troubled by bleeding - instantly responding with his personal concern.

Conversion to this Jesus-type realism brings spiritual perceptiveness; trying to look at life around us through the eyes of the Father, we glimpse God’s reality.  For those with eyes to see, when we accept responsibility for others, specific instances reveal the nature of the universal.  As disciples we must be earthed in the next routine chore, the next casual encounter.

Jesus, and the prophets before him, made no bones about the pointlessness of religiosity, and we should be humble enough to acknowledge that to our critics.  But remember that Jesus was a conforming Jew of his day – basing his radically realistic life on meditation and prayer, critical familiarity with the Scriptures, involvement in his local synagogue and special religious occasions in Jerusalem.  These were the sources of his vision and practice. 

If we are to put into practice our acceptance of Jesus’ insight into foundational reality, we will find it unnecessarily hard going without the support of the Church.   Would the Charleston mourners cope as they are doing, without the leadership and support of their church community?   Using Jesus’ foundational faith would be beyond me without the encouragement of religious teaching, discipline and fellowship, not least in House of God.

When we leave this Service, we are encouraged to go “in peace to love and serve the Lord”.  We are part of what should be a ‘mission-shaped church’, not a ‘church-shaped mission’.  Human flourishing is dependent on the foundational reality identified as the Father by Jesus, the Lord!

Pentecost

Given by: 

Terry Edwards

Date given: 

24th May 2015

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

14

Sermon preached at Islip, Sunday 24 May 2015, Pentecost, by Terry Edwards

[the original sermon was presented in a livelier fashion using an actual glove (red, of course!) and demonstrating the points.]

The resurrection liberated Jesus; that's its basic meaning. In John Masefield's play, Procia, Pilate's wife, sends for Longinus, the centurion in charge of the crucifixion and asks him what has happened. "He was a fine young man" said Longinus "but when we were finished with him he was a poor broken thing on a cross". "So you think that he is finished and ended? " said Procia. "No madam, I do not" said Longinus "He is set free throughout the world where neither Jew nor Greek can stop his truth".

We may never know precisely what happened on that Pentecost Sunday more than 2000 years ago, which we celebrate today. What we do know for sure is that it was a very special day in the life of the early Christian Church. We often speak of the events of that day as 'the coming of the Holy Spirit' as though that was the day that the Holy Spirit first came into existence, but of course that isn't so. Read Genesis, the story of how God created the world and you find that it speaks of the Spirit moving across the face of the waters. Read the Acts of the Apostles, the account of the early Church where you will find it made plain that the Holy Spirit spoke through King David and through the Prophet Isaiah. You will find Stephen, the Apostle accusing the Jews of having, all through their history, opposed the Spirit. So you see, the Spirit is God, but God in every age and in every time revealing his truth to mankind.

We heard in the reading about Pentecost that the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, and from that day on, the Spirit became an important part of their lives and the life of the early Church. How does that happen ? How can the Spirit change lives ? Yours and mine as welt as those first disciples. Take a glove. It reminds me of some people, me included, useless and floppy as it is. It can't pick things up or hold them; it can't even wave very well. How can I make it useful ? Put it on. See how my hand fills it, as the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. Now my hand fills it, it takes control of it as the Spirit took control of the Disciples' lives and can take control of our lives too. What happens to my hand when it’s inside the glove ? It becomes invisible doesn't it. I know it’s in there; you know it’s in there but you can't see it. The Holy Spirit's like that -Invisible. In the reading we heard him described as being like the wind, well the wind's invisible but you can see it’s effects, like trees blowing about, washing blowing on a line. When the Holy Spirit works you can see the effects even though you can't see him in the same way you can see the effects if you move fingers around in the glove even if you can’t see the actual fingers.. He's still real, like the person on the other end of the telephone line, invisible to you, but still real. The glove can't pick things up by itself, but when a hand is in it, it can. The Holy Spirit is a Helper who can help us to do things, or get things done that we cannot do ourselves. In John's gospel, chapter 14, we can read of how Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to the disciples as a helper or Counsellor.

If someone asks the way the glove can't show it on its own; but with that hand inside the glove it can point, it can be a guide both to God and in our understanding about God. That's how it happens, that's how the Holy Spirit can change lives, by being the one who is in us; invisible; a helper, counsellor, guide. Read John 14 w 15-17

Come Holy Spirit.

Key Questions in Christianity: Second in the Series

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

10th May 2015

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

15

Easter 6 2015: ‘Key Questions in Christianity’: Second in the series, 10th May, 2015

 

Driving home from church last Sunday I caught for the first time a Radio 4 comedy called ‘Dilemma’. Hosted by Sue Perkins, it asks a panel of comedians to consider various outlandish moral questions. It claims to be, ‘The show that puts morality under the magnifying glass and waits for the sun’.  I tried to be enjoy it – at least they were talking about morality on prime time radio. But the familiar mockery and banter of the panel left me cold. What seemed particularly odd was the effort to award points for the ‘moral high ground’ to panellists following each facile consideration of an ethical dilemma. Sue Perkins is skilled at distinguishing between biscuits on  Bake Off, but her attempts to provide reasons for finding one fatuous comment more ethical than another were pretty woeful. So for instance, in the quick fire round, as a panellist chose between either getting mugged every day on one hand, or living in a bottle bank, on the other, Perkins giggled, ‘that’s the right, very cool, answer.’

Which kind of sums up our contemporary attitude towards morality – if it’s cool, flip, hip, and funny – then it’s right.  Or at least OK. Or maybe just the best we can do in this godless day and age. The only reference to any sort of higher power --  such as statistics, science, philosophy or God -- was, rather predictably, an anti-Creationist gag.

I must admit to feeling depressed from time to time about the ways in which our society discusses, or mostly doesn’t discuss, moral and ethical dilemmas. The language of ‘right and wrong’ has almost been erased from our vocabulary. And that’s unprecedented in human history. Even atheists in previous generations have managed to produce rich conversation about virtue and morality, though now we realise they were perhaps more dependent on the prevailing religious air they breathed than they would have acknowledged. Now that that religious story and vocabulary has largely been discarded by opinion formers, we are left without the heroes, and villains, and the patterns and paradigms which these stories once gave to practically all cultures prior to our own. Think of how children learn right and wrong –primarily by learning stories which make a moral point. Bible stories, Aesop’s fables, fairy tale, Greek myths. Last week in CHAOS our children were asked posed various moral dilemmas as they discussed the difference between building their house on the sand, and building their house on the rock. They were being taught how to weigh up difficult decisions, and arrive at a decision that seems rightly related to God above, and the reality of the ground beneath them.  Something the wise man in the parable would do.

This is the second in a little mini series of sermons I’m preaching about the key questions which Christianity asks. Last week we talked about the questions which kind of come before we might arrive at faith in God. Questions like, ‘how can I understand the Bible unless I have someone to explain it to me?’ ‘Is the Bible just about those people way back then or Can I find words for me, today, in its pages? And ‘What is there to prevent me from being baptised’.  (website)

This morning we look at the big question emerging from a decision to be baptised, or to follow Jesus, and that is ‘how shall we then live?’ This is the million dollar question. The one which lies behind all advice columns, self help books, therapy, life-coaching, and religion. It’s the serious libation upon which the froth of programmes like Radio 4’s Dilemma, floats. Competing answers to this question shape our political discourse, and in the aftermath of one of the most turbulent elections in history, we look at the composition of the new House of Commons, and ask afresh, How shall we then live?

There’s a reading from the 55th Chapter of Isaiah assigned for today, which doesn’t make it onto your crowded pew sheet this morning. But it reminds us that the question of how to find a good way of living has been asked from time immemorial and it always sounds contemporary. ‘Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?’ asks Isaiah. When we go shopping for the good life, why do we so often come home with our basket empty?

Biblical writers generally use fairly formal language. But Isaiah starts this passage with the little interjection, ‘Ho’. Ho, he says, which is kind of like saying ‘Oi’:  ‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the water, and you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.’ You’re buying physical stuff says Isaiah, when what you really want is the spiritual food which money cannot buy. So why do you keep shopping?

The key moral insight in the Bible, in Judeo- Christian scripture, is ‘go deeper’. All this shopping, all  this concern with how we look, how we come across, all this work for stuff which does not satisfy --- it’s all masking a deeper spiritual hunger and the really essential questions of life.

Over and over, Jesus tries to get across the point that the surface is not very important…. It’s what’s in the heart that matters. You obey all the rules about diet, exercise and etiquette, he tells the religious leaders of his day, but your hearts are deeply unclean. You focus on the hundreds of moral rules which Judaism has constructed, but you forget that at the heart of all these commandments is love. You look for ways to be spiritually impressive, he says to his followers, but really you need to be like this. And he places a young child at the centre of the crowd.

In the gospel we’ve heard read this morning, Jesus goes to the heart of that question about how we should live. There are many commandments which good Jews tried to follow. Jesus says, this is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you. 

Note the whole sentence, the whole command. He doesn’t say, ‘love one another out of your general store of wonderfulness’. He doesn’t say, ‘love everyone, because you have the stable family support and economic base from which to give to those less fortunate’. Instead Jesus points out that the only way we can fulfil the command to love, is because we first have fulfilled the command to receive the love that God is longing to give us. When Jesus was walking around, listening to his followers, laughing at their bad jokes, cooking them breakfast, sorting them out when they were ill… it was perhaps easier for them to sing ‘Jesus loves me this I know’. It’s harder for us now. We have to trust the words of the love which we read in the scripture. ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,’ goes the old children’s song. When the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, Karl Barth, a man who wrote many many complicated books of theology in dense German, was asked at a lecture what it all boiled down to, he simply sang that song.

Radio 4’s Dilemma, bills itself as the ‘show that holds a magnifying glass to morality, and waits for the sun’. In actual fact, it holds a mirror to moral questions and allows panellists to talk about themselves. Christianity waits for the sun, the Son of God, to shine his love into our lives, so that we can bring that love into every moral situation, viewing it not through our own self obsessions, desires, or spiritual thirst, but with a clarity, and focus born out of deep connection with God.

It’s this ability to go deeper, which enables people, at the end of the day to lay down their lives for others. ‘Greater love hath no man, (says the old King James version I learned)than to lay down his life for his friends.’

How then shall we live? We live in a way that leads to this greater love.  We practice day to day, the small acts of laying down our lives, which make us ever more like Jesus, who laid down his life to death, even the horrible death on a cross, to redeem us all. Today there may well be Christians in Iraq or Syria, the few that are left, who face death, even death on a cross. For many have been crucified because they are ‘people of the cross’. We have celebrated another 70th anniversary from the Second World War this week, remembering those who did literally lay down their lives for others. We need to be people prepared to do the same in extenuating circumstances. But our very shallow and morally bereft culture hardly prepares us for this greater love.

Yet every time we manage to put to one side our desires and preoccupations, our mirrors and our digital forays into self-promotion, our entertainments and our fork -- when we drag ourselves out of bed to comfort a crying child, when we turn down a promotion because our spouse and kids really don’t want to move, when we go and spend time with that friend who has dementia, when we take some of that money we’d laid aside for new furniture, and send it to those who have no roof over their head. When we do these things, we know we are walking on that path which takes us to ‘greater love’.  

Love doesn’t come out of a vacuum – it’s a responsive thing. It is generated by relationship. That too is a central insight of Christianity, which imagines God as a loving relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – a sort of mystical generator of love – as opposed to an old man with a beard --  at the heart of the universe. We love, says scripture, because we are caught up into this Trinitarian love of God, and our response to being so well loved, is that we can really love others. We don’t manufacture the feeling , or the action of love, all on our own.

Here’s a true story, which I invite you to hear as a parable, looking for the deeper meaning.  Earlier this week, Rene Marshall, went to her Extend exercise class, in the Kings Cliffe village hall, and stretched out her arms and legs to the soundtrack of ‘I’m in the mood for love, simply because you’re near me, funny but when you’re near me, I’m in the mood for love’. Her mind took her back 70 years, when on VE day, she was in that very same place, Kings Cliffe village hall, dancing in the arms of a soldier, as the American military band played, (you guessed it)  ‘I’m in the mood for love’.

The answer to life’s deepest questions and dilemmas is not a set of rules, or a diversionary set of jokes. It’s the love which we extend to others, as we exercise our powers of compassion, and attention, and discretion. And we are able to love simply because he’s near us.

AMEN.

Key Questions in Christianity: first in three part series

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

3rd May 2015

Book: 

Acts

Chapter: 

8

Easter 5 2015: ‘Key Questions in Christianity’ : First in the series

 

Acts 8.26-end

Psalm, 22. 25-end

I John 4.7-end

John 15. 1-8

This morning I’d like to start a little three part series considering key questions in Christianity. As we sit here in church today, 4 days before a General Election, the journalists, the pollsters, are feverishly working this country, trying to find the questions that will probe into the psyches of the undecided; they frame the questions this way and that way. It’s an art. It’s a science, and it’s big business. Getting the questions right is often the key to breakthrough…  whether we’re sitting in a counsellor’s office being asked to talk about our earliest childhood memory, or sitting in a boardroom asking what reality lies behind the accountant’s figures.

We come into church to contemplate an unseen thing called God, which begs some of the most important questions we’ll ever ask.  Some of you might question from a scientific perspective, ‘How can I even begin to think about something I can’t measure?’  Some of you may ask from the depths of pain, ‘How can God let this happen to me?’  Sometimes your questions might be very precise:  ‘Should I apply for this job? Is he the one?’ Or perhaps they’re very open ended: ‘what’s it all about?’ ‘why am I here’?

If you’ve got a lot of questions this morning, take heart, because when you look closely at that collection of Jewish and Christian holy writings which we call the Bible, you find it’s shot through with questions, people asking questions of God, of Jesus… Jesus and God asking questions of them in return.  In this series of sermons on key questions, we’ll look at some of these questions and also at how people try to find answers. If you want the whole series, not only do you need to appear at Laxton (9am) or KC (10am) next Sunday, but also have to make a special appearance at the Ascension day service at 7:30pm on Thursday 14th May, here in Kings Cliffe. We’re hosting the whole Deanery group of churches to the service which celebrates one of the most questionable doctrines in the church, the ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven after his resurrection. Philip will preside, I’ll preach, and we’ll serve bubbly afterwards to help us all recover.

But today we keep our feet more or less on the ground, with the story of an early Philip who chases after a man riding in a chariot. The story from Acts, takes place on the road from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, through Gaza. Three place names which all raise troubling questions 2000 years later. As does the charioteer’s  sexuality… for this man is a eunuch. That means that like my poor dog Zebedee, he has been de-testicled so that he might devote himself more wholeheartedly to his female boss. Eunuchs were a part of life in the ancient world, and interestingly, whenever eunuchs feature in a bible story, they play a positive role. Jesus mentions eunuchs in the 19th chapter of Matthew, saying, ‘there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can’. (19:12)

But not everyone could.  Eunuchs were not accepted in the religious economy of Judaism.  According to a few verses in Deuteronomy, those who were sexually mutilated were not permitted into the temple of God. So although this Ethiopian eunuch, we are told, has been to the temple in Jerusalem to worship, we must assume that he didn’t get very far into the labyrinth of structures which sectioned off Jew from Gentile, male from female and the pure from the impure. In fact, as an Ethiopian, and a eunuch, this man was very much kept at arm’s length from the Holy of Holies.

Nevertheless, this eunuch was engrossed in reading a chapter of the Jewish scriptures  in the book of Isaiah. And  that’s interesting, because in the book of Isaiah God mentions not only that he will ‘recover the remnant that is left of his people, in Ethiopia’ (11:11) but also says that’ eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, will be welcome in the house of god and will receive a name better than sons and daughters (56:4-5).

So what’s it going to be? Deuteronomy or Isaiah? Eunuchs in or eunuchs out? Even within the Jewish scriptures there was conflict. Add in the Christian writers of the New Testament and the waters are muddied further.  So the first question of this story in the book of Acts is very pertinent. Philip hears the Ethiopian reading something from Isaiah, (everyone read aloud in those days) and he runs up to the chariot asking ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

Do you understand what you are reading? That’s an enormous question which Christianity asks of us. Do we understand what we are reading when we look at the scriptures, these words supposedly inspired by God? And also, do we understand what we are reading when we look at the world around us, at nature, other people, books, films, etc… Do we take it all in? Can we make any sense of it? Is there any pattern, or is it just a pretty random stream of impressions, like a facebook, twitter or Instagram feed?

How can I make any sense of it? asks the Eunuch, unless I have someone to guide me?

His is a very good question. And it shows a certain amount of humility.  We all, in fact, rely on guides to help us interpret everything about the world, even though many of us like to think we can go it alone. The eunuch I guess, understands that he needs someone to teach him, someone who has felt the embrace of God, who can read the cold ink on the page in the warm light of God’s spirit. He needs, as all of us do, a Philip to guide him.

So he reads out the passage from Isaiah 53: ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was denied him’. And he asks Philip, ‘about whom does the prophet say this?’ who is the shorn one?  ‘Is this only about Isaiah and his situation, or could it be about me as well? ‘

As a eunuch, this man undoubtedly knew something about being shorn, about humiliation and about justice denied and he seems to be wondering whether God might be speaking directly to him and to his own experience.  When Philip hops on board, and begins to explain the whole relevance of this piece of scripture it turns out to be even better news than the Ethiopian imagined. Not only does God know and understand the eunuch’s experience of being humiliated and ostracised; Jesus himself took on that lowly and outcast state.

When the eunuch’s story of shame is refracted through the story of the cross and resurrection of  Jesus, it becomes a narrative of redemption, restoration and hope.

The answer to the question ‘what is this Bible all about?’ is always threefold. It’s a story of God’s interaction with specific people in history long ago. It’s about the person of Jesus Christ who took on that story and transformed it. It’s about you and me and the way our story can connect into those other stories and be completely transformed by these new connections.

Once this threefold way of reading scripture had been explained to the eunuch, he experienced a sense of liberation which the great Methodist hymnwriter Charles Wesley described like this: ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose went forth and followed thee’.

The Revd Richard Coles quotes those lines in his recently published autobiography, as he describes his moment of conversation to a Jesus who loves him, even though he is gay, even though he has broken every single rule in the book during his years as pop star. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed thee.

It is the Holy Spirit moving through the world, which moves us towards that liberation. This story of Philip and the eunuch as you may have noticed, actually has a third main character in it, the Holy Spirit, which propelled Philip into Gaza, helped him run alongside the chariot, and encouraged the eunuch to bravely ask for his help. The Holy Spirit is what soaks the dry dusty millennia old words of scripture with water for our souls.

‘What is to prevent me from being baptised?’ asks the eunuch. Well quite a lot actually. He is the first non-Jew in scripture to ask this question, he has pledged loyalty to a foreign queen, he is the wrong race and the wrong sexuality. Philip consults, we assume, the Holy Spirit and says ‘Absolutely nothing’. Nothing can come between you and God’s desire to give you new life, new freedom. Jesus has been shorn, humiliated, and outcast on our behalf. He has taken all that to the cross, and shown in the resurrection that all of that is now ultimately defeated.

And so the chariot stops. There in the desert, they find oasis. A moment of calm when the horse stops galloping, the chariot stops thundering, the questions cease, and the eunuch is welcomed as a child of the same heavenly father which we worship today.

When they come out of the water, the spirit snatches Philip away and sends him off to Ceasurea, where we learn later in the scripture, he settled and produced  4 daughters who became prophets.

The eunuch, meanwhile, goes back to Ethiopia, ‘on his way rejoicing’ the scriptures tell us. There he must have been instrumental in founding the Ethiopian Coptic church, one of the oldest group of believers in Christendom. A church which is materially poor, but spiritually rich. A church which just declared as saints 19 martyrs killed by ISIS. A church which we will soon be supporting as Christian Aid week this year focuses its fundraising on Ethiopia.

The Eunuch’s questions:

  1. How can I understand, unless someone guides me?

  2. About whom… does the prophet say this?

  3. ‘what is to prevent me from being baptised?’

Are key questions in Christianity. How will you find the guidance you need on your spiritual journey? Is coming to church enough for you? Do you need to join a Bible study group, to try to make more sense of the scriptures? Do you need a spiritual director? Or somebody to talk through your questions with? How can we understand unless somebody guides us?

And about whom… does the prophet say this? Where does my life map on to the stories of the scripture? How do the words of the Bible become alive to me? How does the Holy Spirit use me in the great story of salvation?

And ‘what is to prevent me, even me, from being baptised? The story of Philip and the eunuch tells us that nothing matters except our desire to be part of God’s story. Nothing disqualifies us. Not our race, or gender, or sexuality, or nationality, or past mistakes, or even the mistakes we’re going to make in the future. In fact this eunuch shows us the key role of the outsider in the religious life. It is often the person outside the fold, outside the club, outside the inner circle who can formulate the questions which are needed by us all, to reconsider, recalibrate and find our way to rebirth. What a gift to the church this eunuch was… the first to open it out to those of racial and sexual difference, the first to take the gospel message into Africa. We need not be afraid of honest questions asked by those outside the church. Or by honest questions asked by those of us inside the church. They are gifts. As we open up questions, and look to the scriptures and the holy spirit for answers, we find we stumble across oasis of water, of refreshment, symbols of new life. Once we stop the chariot and get down off our high horse, what is to prevent us from being baptised, again and again in that new life? Absolutely nothing.

AMEN

 

 

 

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