A New Frame of Mind – some sermon notes for Easter 5A

Keep calm 2

Sermon notes for Easter 5A for St Thomas’ Ellesmere Port & St Lawrence Stoak

We often hear the angels say “do not be afraid”. Jesus takes up their heavenly strain. He says “Do not let your hearts be troubled”. It’s as if the whole heavenly host are trying to strengthen us and encourage us.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

The many dwelling places are places made ready for us to live in, places for us to dwell, abiding places, where we may be where Jesus is.

It is such a well known passage that some of us might know it by heart (it’s certainly good that we should take it to heart). It’s a passage which is often used at funerals – and that has had the effect that apply the passage to our post-mortem state. But what if this isn’t about when we die but is more about where we live?

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to crucifixion and resurrection. That is the preparation of a place for us – and it’s a place which is opened up for us in life, not just in our death.

Suddenly we are given a choice. Jesus is saying to us “your place or mine?” – the choice is between the place in which our hearts are troubled, and the place opened up for us by Jesus where we can be where he is. There is another space, another place for us to live.

Have any of you seen the sculptures by Anthony Gormley at Crosby? It’s called Another Place. It is interesting how the mood of the sculptures changes with different circumstances. Here is the calm – a warm day, just right for a paddle. There are other days, when the tide is high, when the sea is stormy, when these sculptures look like they are drowning, clinging to life.

Put a fence in front of them and the mood becomes very sinister, particularly as the fence divides us from them. They look like prisoners. Are they enemies? Is there a reason we need to be kept safe from them?

My point here is that we have another place – a dwelling place which Jesus has prepared for us where we may be also, day to day in which our hearts would otherwise be troubled.

This has come home to me only recently. I was asked to do a funeral. The person who had died had a really difficult life in which he had suffered from severe mental illness from an early age but had hidden it from everyone except his closest family. His children had to keep the secret. Neither parent could work. They were too proud to claim their rightful benefits …. You can perhaps imagine the very mixed emotions of the family when he died.

They chose the passage we have read this morning for the funeral, presumably for the hope they had for their father. But what if Jesus hasn’t just prepared a place for those who have died, but also for those who grieve? And not just as a consolation in terms of “there is a place in heaven” but in the sense that a new space is opened for us to move into in which we find a more compassionate understanding, a kinder understanding, a gentler understanding, a place generous and forgiving in which we can see our troubles in a new light.

This is a space prepared for those whose hearts are troubled. Those not knowing how to make ends meet. Those who don’t know where to turn. Those who are overwhelmed. Those who know their need of God and a world of his making.

We have a choice. We can let our hearts be troubled, or we can accept Jesus’ invitation and the Spirit’s urging to that other space – the space prepared for us.

This is a space we move into in prayer, or retreat, or moments that just open up for us in which we experience the strengthening and encouragement of God. Prayer and discipleship is how we inhabit the space Jesus has prepared for us.

Our reading from Acts (Acts 7:55-60) describes the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

StephenThe Tiffany window showing the Stoning of Stephen focuses on Stephen’s appearance. His face is shining. That is what those looking at Stephen noticed. “They saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15)

I would like us to take this in for a moment. This is what happens when we move away from the space that brings trouble to our hearts into that space where we see our troubles in a new light. One of our prayers this week was (the Collect for Julian of Norwich)

Most holy God, the ground of our beseeching, grant that as we are created in your nature and restored by your grace, our wills may be so made one with yours that we may come to see you face to face and gaze on you for ever.  Amen.

A person who survived Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl, has this to say:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

He remembers: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread”. 

They made their choice in that misery, to not let their hearts become selfish, but to live charitably, even to their last piece of bread.

We also have a choice for the time being. We can choose one place or another. We can choose the place prepared for us by Jesus, or the place that is so troubling. It is the same life.  We don’t escape the troubles. After all, Stephen was stoned to death and Jesus suffered on the cross.

But there is a space that is opened for us to live with a different frame of mind, a different choice of attitude, that chooses to trust the one who doesn’t want our hearts to be troubled. It is on that that we need to dwell.

PS If you’ve read so far (thank you) you might be interested in this Blessing of Many Rooms by Jan Richardson

Training Champions of the Human Race

Yusra Mardini
Notes for a sermon for Christ the King, Birkenhead, August 14th 2016 (Proper 15C, Ordinary 20C, Pentecost +13)

Have you been watching the Olympics?  It’s too easy to watch too much isn’t it? What have been your highlights?

Did you see Yusra Mardini win her 200 metre freestyle swimming heat? Yusra was swimming for the Refugee Olympic team. She got such a cheer. She won her heat, though didn’t qualify for the semi finals because others had swum faster than her.

Yusra is 18 years old. She was born in Damascus, a Syrian Christian and represented Syria in 2012. Her family’s house was destroyed and the roof of her training pool was blown off. She and her sister Sarah decided to flee Syria last summer. They reached Lebanon, then Turkey, and then boarded a boat for Greece. There were 20 of them in a dinghy designed for six. The boat was soon in trouble with the motor failing after 30 minutes. There were only four swimmers in the boat: Yusra, her sister and two others. They had to get out and pushed and pulled for 3 hours until they bought the boat to shore on Lesbos and the lives of the people on board so saving the lives of all their fellow passengers.

Last August, after 25 days, she arrived in Berlin. She gets up at 4 o’clock every morning to train before going to school. That has been her training schedule. That is how she arrived at the Olympics.

Also in the swimming pool was Adam Peaty, our first swimming gold medal since 1988. He’s from Uttoxeter. He used to be scared of water. You couldn’t tell could you?

Besides his own dedication – his story is one of immense and sacrificial support by his mother, the rest of the family and his neighbours – as they have struggled to make the money to pay for the petrol to get him to his training.

His response to winning: “I’m proud to have pushed the boundaries of the human race.” Are we pushing the boundaries of the human race? And if we are thinking to ourselves how old we are, that we are too frail, there will be the Paralympians coming along next month to shame our outlook. And if we are thinking that we are unfit then we have to open our ears and hearts to the good news that God’s love helps us fit for the kingdom, not our strength.

Are any of you successful athletes? Or maybe you’re not medal winners, but you’ve got a life of achievement because of the work that you have put in – you’ve brought up children, you’ve supported a sick relative, you’ve ….

Or, perhaps more of us are conscious of our failings, the missed opportunities, inability to keep our resolve – losing our way in lives full of regrets. Me too.

 

Our first reading (Hebrews 11:29-12:2) gives honourable mentions to many people – to the prostitute Rahab, to Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets – those who administered justice, those whose weakness was turned to strength, those who endured torture, imprisonment and persecution – destitute, ill-treated, homeless. They are all commended for their faith.

The letter is written in the past tense, but the honourable mention is intended to embrace those who now administer justice, those who endure torture, imprisonment and persecution, those whose faith is commendable. They are all champions of the human race – and we are all encouraged to run with them for a podium finish – at the right hand of God. “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfected of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1f)

 

We have all been introduced to the pool in our baptism. It might be a long time since we swam in those waters but perhaps it’s worth casting our minds to our baptisms and the call to swim in those waters. That is the training pool for future champions – champions of the human race.

Those who get honourable mentions are commended for the race they ran even though they could hardly make out the tape. According to this letter to the Hebrews, God has planned something far better for us. I don’t know whether any of you have been to the dogs but the greyhounds race after the hare that has been set running. We have Jesus before us, to fix our eyes on, to follow.

Where Jesus goes, our eyes follow. That is where we set our sights. The highways and by-ways, the margins ………… “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Yusra Mardini, in an interview this week says that she has been overwhelmed by the support that she has had and that she hopes that she has “opened the world’s eyes to the plight of those who have been displaced” – which is where eyes will focus if they are fixed on Jesus because we know his time was/is for them and those like them who are strangers (even aliens) to the powers that be.

Jesus is the goal, but what about our training schedule?

The words of Psalm 90 shouted out to me this week:

The days of our life are three score years and ten, or if our strength endures, even four score; yet the sum of them is but labour and sorrow, for they soon pass away and we are gone (verse 10)

How soon life passes. Before we know it we are at the end of our days, and we can easily become overwhelmed by the sense of opportunities missed. Life runs away with us. In this context the psalmist prays:

Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom (verse 12). Numbering our days means making our days count, whether we have 3 days, months, weeks, years. How shall we use the time that we have? Shall we train them on the human race we run?

The psalmist continues (verse 15), Give us gladness for the days you have afflicted us, and for the years in which we have seen adversity – a simple plea for a better time than the times wasted or suffered.

Part of my own training schedule is to pick up a poem each day. For me it’s like a protein shake – it builds me up and gives me energy. This poem I picked up this week is by Annie Dillard and is called How we Spend our Days  It is about how we manage our time, structure our time so it helps us keep a good time and a winning time.

How we spend our days
is, of course,
how we spend our lives.

What we do with this hour,
and that one,
is what we are doing.

A schedule
defends from chaos
and whim.

It is a net
for catching days.
It is a scaffolding

on which a worker
can stand
and labor with both hands

at sections of time.
A schedule is a mock-up
of reason and order –

willed, faked,
and so brought into being;
it is a peace and a haven

set into the wreck of time;
it is a lifeboat
on which you find yourself,

decades later,
still living.
Each day is the same,

so you remember
the series afterward
as a blurred and powerful pattern.

So what about a training schedule? (And what would go in that schedule?)

What about aiming for a good time? (And what a good time for you be?)

How about championing the human race and the whole of God’s creation?

 

 

 

Seeing differently, seeing by heart – St John’s Day

A sermon for St John’s Day for St Alban’s, Broadheath

candle_flame_01

Is there anyone here named John …… or Jonathon, or Joan, or Jean, or Jeanette, or Janet, or Ian or Joanne or Johnson, or Jones ……?

We light a candle to you today, because it is your name day – it is St John’s Day.

Do you know what the name means?

It’s from the Hebrew, Yohanan, which means “Yahweh is gracious”.

What a lovely name to carry. (I often wonder how our names shape our outlook and who we are.)

John is the one (and there could be several people rolled into one – but let’s not complicate things too much), John is the one who proclaims Jesus as the Word made flesh, the Light of the world, and who was “the disciple Jesus loved”. He was one of the sons of Zebedee, follower of Jesus, with Jesus at the Transfiguration, with Jesus at the Last Supper, with Jesus in his agony in the garden, with Jesus and his mother at the foot of the cross, with Jesus as a witness of the resurrection and was with Jesus in the church in the proclamation of his gospel.

There is no birth story in John’s gospel. There’s no Bethlehem, Nazareth, shepherds, wise men or baby Jesus. Simply and wonderfully John begins his gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

That is a birth story of a different kind.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

That’s a different way of telling the story of Jesus’ birth

hunt_light_of_the_world

One of our most favourite paintings is the painting by Holman Hunt of the Light of the World – which pictures Jesus standing at the door of our dark lives, knocking. Holman Hunt painted the picture – John gave us the picture: a picture of the light which shines in the darkness – a picture of hope, warmth and tenderness.

As John talks about the Light of the world he talks about seeing. Time and again there is the invitation in his gospel “Come and see”. While the people in Matthew’s gospel are divided as sheep and goats, in John’s gospel the division is between those who see and those who don’t see.

Those who see don’t just see with their eyes. They see with their hearts. John uses three different words for seeing. There’s the seeing with the eyes, as in John 20:1 when Mary Magdalen went to the tomb and SAW that the stone had been moved from the tomb. That was something she noticed, that she saw with her eyes.

A little later in that same chapter (John 20:4) Peter looks into the tomb and sees the linen wrappings there. John uses a different word for seeing – it’s a seeing with the mind as when we say “the penny dropped”. It began to dawn on Peter. He began to understand what had happened.

Then finally, just a few verses on in that chapter, 20:8, the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, went in the tomb. “He saw and believed”.

So John describes three ways of seeing – with eyes, with the mind and with the heart. That’s why we can all see the same thing and come to different conclusions. That’s why when we have different commitments to the same conclusions. We see a lot of things but barely take notice, we understand other things and just a few things we know by heart.

Specsavers doesn’t help.

I knew a man who did see but then became blind. And he was greatly troubled by John’s gospel with its language of light and sight. The world became dark to him – the darkness spread from eyes to mind, from mind to heart, but the darkness did not overcome him. There came a time when he started to see by heart. He called it WBS – “whole body seeing”. Imagine his joy when that darkness lifted.

Specsavers may help us the mistake of stripping in the kitchen (with all its sharp knives) instead of the sauna, or help us to make sure we are snogging the right person on the train platform, but however many pairs of glasses Specsavers give us they are not going to help us make sense or make love with the world.

What is our sight like? The eye tests we get at Specsavers are no measure for what John is talking about. We may be able to read all the letters on the bottom line. That doesn’t guarantee our understanding. There is so much we see that we don’t understand. There is so much that we see that is just prejudice (blind prejudice).

We may have excellent eyesight. We may have three degrees, be clever clever with all the things that we see with our minds, but until we see from our heart we will never be able to read the love that is between the lines.

John tells the story of the man born blind who was helped to see by Jesus. The incident caused a great deal of trouble. Jesus told the man who had been blind “I came into the world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” To which, some of the Pharisees said “surely we are not blind, are we?”

But there are things that we don’t see aren’t there? For example, we tend not to see what is happening in the Jungle at Calais. And on the other hand, there are those who are so moved with compassion that they do see the suffering of others, as celebrated by the Christmas Number 1 by the Greenwich and Lewisham NHS Choir.

The Pharisees question is the wrong question. “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They don’t see, do they? The question that we should be asking is “How can we see?” or “how can we see by heart?”

John gives us an answer.

The disciples and Jesus had many meals together. They didn’t use tables and chairs – those of you who have holidayed in Turkey will have seen how people still eat – sat on cushions on the floor around a slightly raised table. John’s gospel refers to “reclining” at the table. In his account of the Last Supper

John 13:23: Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. (KJV)

That’s where the disciple Jesus loved had his head, with his ear to Jesus’ heart – at the bosom of Jesus, so close he could hear the heart-beat, the whisper of Jesus in his ear: seeing by heart what Jesus also knew by heart because he too (1:18) is at the bosom of his father. NRSV translates that verse as “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Picture1

The key to vision is being close to Jesus’s heart. The key to Jesus’ vision is that he is that close to his father’s heart.

The disciple who lay like this is not named by John. Some have said that it is John himself. It’s more likely that he chose to leave the identity open – so that all beloved disciples could read themselves into this story. John means us.

How can we see with the heart? The answer is by being close enough that we can hear Jesus’ heart-beat, close enough that we can see what makes him tick, close enough that we can feel the breath of his whisper on our skin.

That’s how we can see better. That is how we can see differently.

Or we could go to another gospel for an answer. We can go to the birth stories of Jesus, to the point of view of the crib, recognising God’s outlook from the vulnerability of a baby, and realising that we see our lives differently in the light of the light of the world, that we see others, even strangers and enemies in a new light, and that helps us to read the love between the lines that the world draws us to divide us.

Readings for the day: Exodus 33:7-11a, 1 John 1, John 21:19b-end

(The Greenwich and Lewisham NHS Choir singing “A Bridge Over You” – something that has been around for two years

Eucharistic community – is it the bearing we’re wearing? Sermon notes Trinity 9B

Notes for a sermon for the saints at St Wilfred Grappenhall – August 2nd 2015 (Proper 13B, Ordinary 18B, Trinity 9)

The text: Ephesians 4:1-16

We all have one letter in our hands – it’s a part of a letter with a prison stamp, which seems to be addressed not just to people in one place, Ephesus, but to all places at all times. This fragment is intriguing because of the wonderfully motivating language, but because it touches on the behaviour of saints. It’s a letter to saints about how saints behave. In the letter WE are called saints so it’s a letter about how we behave.

My sermon is playing for time – time for us to dwell on this fragment – time to gather round three hearths within the fragment. Please feel free to wander round this in your own way at any point, but for those who want to stay with me I start with a question that, for some reason kept bugging me while I was reading this letter. The question is, “Why did the guest have to leave the party?” It’s a question posed by the story from Matthew’s gospel (chapter 22).

I’ve got an email here which might remind you of that story. It’s one of those “complaining” emails.

It begins:

“Hi King”, (isn’t it strange how we don’t use “dear” so much in emails? Does it mean that people are now less dear and precious to us in the days of bulk correspondence?) – anyway, the email goes on:

“I feel I have to complain to you about the way you treated me at the party you organised. First of all, thank you for the invitation. I had thought that I would have been invited to one of your earlier parties because of the work I have done in the community. Anyway, I did manage to rearrange my diary so that I could join you in the palace.

“I was shaken when your flunkies grabbed me and escorted me from the party. I can’t see what I did wrong. They said it was because of what I was wearing, but the invitation did say that the dress code was informal, and other people were wearing t-shirts and shorts as well.

“What’s made matters worse is the media coverage. The headlines are awful and everywhere, and the film showing me weeping and gnashing my teeth has gone viral on youtube. You have made me a laughing stock. It has been so damaging, embarrassing and disrespectful. I demand an immediate apology.

“And one more thing. I don’t know who did the seating plan, but I can’t understand why I wasn’t at one of the top tables. You don’t seem to realise who I am.

Yours, humiliated,
Frank Lee Speaking.”

I’ve got the king’s reply:

“May I speak to you frankly? I do this in love.

I felt honoured that you accepted my invitation, and that you made the time to come (many didn’t – which explains why there were so many people there who you’d probably only seen begging at the city gate). It wasn’t the clothes you wore (I rather liked that t-shirt you wore). No, it was the bearing that you were wearing. You were upsetting the party and upstaging the guests. You were resentful, argumentative and arrogant. You had to go.

I am sorry that you felt embarrassed. That was never my intention. I hope you understand.

Love

Rex X”

Welcome to the party.

As Christians we enjoy ourselves. We use the language of party – a eucharistic language. Sunday by Sunday there is eucharist, celebration, wine, good company, gifts, song and a party Spirit. It’s not a party to be missed for the food – the bread that gives life to the world.

The party spirit of the worshipping community is captured by describing it as “Eucharistic community”. I want to share three hearths with you – the three hearths take us to the heart of what a eucharistic community is – what the party is about.

First:

At the heart of our eucharistic community is our “thank yous”. A eucharistic community meeting is full of thank-yous – count the “thanks” in the liturgy, in our prayers, in our scriptures, in our interactions. We are awash with thanksgiving. Thank you, thank you, thank you. The eucharistic community is raised in appreciation and thanksgiving – indeed, that is the very meaning of the word eucharist.

Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, says that “Thank you” is the best prayer that anyone could say. She says that she gets to say that prayer a lot: “thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility and understanding.” Is that our prayer?

Ephesians talks of “thank yous”. Here’s how The Message translates another verse (5:4) in the letter: “Though some tongues just love the taste of gossip, those who follow Jesus have better uses for language than that. Don’t talk dirty or sill. That kind of talk doesn’t fit our style. Thanksgiving is our dialect.” Thanksgiving is our dialect.

Positive psychologists are also talking about the importance of gratitude and thankfulness as a transformative and converting behaviour…..

Second:

In the depths of Eucharistic language there is gifting – and that is the basis of our gratitude and thankfulness. It is how “eucharist” is spelled. CHARIS comes in the middle of that word. “Charis” is left when you peel away the “eu” and the “t” from the beginning and end of “eucharist”. “Charis” is the heart of “eucharist”. “Charis” means “gift” and “grace”. We have words that are recognisably derived from CHARIS, for example “charity”, “charism” and “charismatic”.

Someone who wears a charm bracelet wraps gifts around her wrist (– a charm arm) – celebrating charming life, an acknowledgement of being charmed and a vocation to be charming, generous and gracious. Grace is the word that is used in the “thank you” letter addressed to the Ephesians. “Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”

I wonder if the wedding guest was told to leave because he had no charm.

According to our reading, there are two groups of people within a Eucharistic community. One group is made up of saints, the other group is made up of apostles (they are advocates), prophets (they speak from the heart of God to the heart of the people), evangelists (they are angels with only have good news to share), pastors (they shepherd) and teachers (guess what they do). Those are charisms that form a ministry team – and you can bet that some people here are part of a team like that – the beginnings of a team of people who are gifted and charmed to help this other group of saints, so that all of us are equipped for ministry until we find the unity that God has in store for us. All of us are charmed and gifted – but some are charmed and gifted to help the rest of us – be saints.

The gifts God gives can only be valued by a Eucharistic community. They are gifts of ministry for the sake of the saints who live for the sake of the world. That’s the party spirit.

Third:

The third hearth of a Eucharistic community is that we are communities in formation.

We are still growing up, with growing pains which show in our joints and the way we join each other. Our relationships are always less than perfect. Outsiders often call us hypocrites because we so often don’t walk the talk.

We often forget that we are still growing, that we have so much to learn, that we are building one another up. We often speak the truth to one another (try to teach one another a lesson) forgetting that the responsibility within the Eucharistic community is to speak the truth in love. That is the party spirit.

I wonder if the wedding guest had to leave because he only spoke the truth, or because he was a know-all, not humble enough to realise that he had so much to learn. Paul said, “we must no longer be children … but speaking the truth in love, must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ ..”

I wonder if it was something about the guest’s bearing. Was it the bearing he was wearing? I wonder whether it is something about the church’s bearing which, in some quarters, has become branded as toxic. Thanksgiving isn’t always what hits people in the eyes. it’s not always obvious that we see ourselves only as children, only as “growing up”. Nor is it always apparent that we are thankful party people, or that we are always charming and blessing.

Each place needs a community of thanksgiving, a community which is intentionally growing up, and a community which is charming and blessing, so that the ways of the world can be changed, so that so that life can be different, so that those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death may find hope, and may find a welcome at the table where all their hungers are satisfied, so that they may share the bread of life.

(The drawing is by Cerezo Barredo, part of series of illustrations for the Revised Common Lectionary – this one is of the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22).

A better frame of mind – sermon notes for Proper 10B

Sermon notes for July 12th 2015
St Thomas & All Saints, Ellesmere Port and St Lawrence’s, Stoak
Ordinary 15B, Proper 10B

Ephesians 1:3-14

What is your frame of mind? What frame of mind are you in?

Where are you on a scale of -5 to +5, where -5 is very negative and +5 is very posiitve?

Is it grim? Is it ecstasy?

What frame of mind are your loved ones in?

What frame of mind is your church in?

Where, on the scale -5 to +5?

What frame of mind is our society in? (Thinking of austerity, migrants, refugees, people on welfare)

What creates that frame of mind?

Things that happened to us as children, while we were still in the womb, things that happened to our parents, attitudes to learning, to school, to work, to neighbours, friendships, the opportunities that have been open to us, our health, our wealth

Where we live, whether in Belgravia with life expectancy of 91 or Stockton on Tees with life expectancy of 67,

Whether we are thriving, or just surviving, flourishing or languishing.

 

Can we change the frame of mind that we are in? Or does the frame of mind box us in, and box us round the ears? Can we be saved from a frame of mind, can we be reframed?

These are questions for the angels (all of whom are positive thinkers).

All those who are positive thinkers think we can change our frame of mind.

All those who are negative thinkers think they can’t – but the positive thinkers know they can change the frame of mind of the most negative, and that is the good news that Paul is talking about in the letter to the churches of Ephesus.

Listen to him again,

“Long ago, even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ, to be holy and without fault in his eyes. His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. And this gave him great pleasure.” That’s how and where he wants to see us – his frame.

But stuff happens to us doesn’t it? And it’s easy to think as the world thinks, or as the world tells us to think – to worry about tomorrow, to fret about what we’ll wear and how we present ourselves to others. We hurt, we suffer, we protect ourselves and our loved ones, we get angry, we get jealous.

Apparently, the more somebody thinks angry thoughts, the angrier they become. Anger narrows our thinking. When angry, people expect life to throw more annoyances at them. Angry people become more judgemental, their threshold for provocation is lowered, and they become negative about people who are not like them etc etc.

The negatives in our lives are so much more powerful than the positives.

Did you know, that to flourish, you have to have a ratio of 5 positives to 1 negative. That’s how strong the power of negative experiences are. Teachers have got it wrong – the guidance for feedback is “3 stars and a wish”. That’s only 3:1. We can get the possible feedback at work, we can be told we are doing a grand job, but the thing we leave with can be one negative comment. “There is one area of weakness that you need to work on”. That will bother us.

The negatives have far more power than the positives, and that is why they need to be so heavily outnumbered. We can live with a ratio of 3:1, but we don’t thrive. Anything less than 3:1 and we are nosediving, we’re languishing, just surviving.

These ratios work on a personal level, but they also work in all organisations – families, work, neighbourhoods, churches.

And that raises the question of how we can help one another, how can we help one another into a better frame of mind? How can we help our loved ones thrive? How can we help ourselves? How can we help our church?

5:1 – Anything from 5:1, but less than 11:1. Anything over 11:1 is going overboard – there needs to be critical awareness. The naysayer is good – we don’t want to be surrounded by yes men and women.

The summary list of positive emotions is: love, joy, gratitude, contentment, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration and awe. They are the Big 10. How can we help others and ourselves to more of these, so that we flourish, so that we bless and know our blessing?

The summary list of negative emotions is: fear, anger, sadness, disgust, contempt, shame, jealousy and envy. There only needs to be eight of them because of their power. It sounds like a description of the Daily Mirror doesn’t it? (I pick on the Daily Mirror only because it fits in with what I want to share in a minute). How do we limit their frequency and intensity?

It seems to me that Paul and Jesus were amazing encouragers in their preaching and teaching. It’s as if they want to get into our hearts and minds to turn the tables so that those voices which deal in fear, anger, sadness, disgust, contempt, shame, jealousy and envy are driven out.

The power of that encouragement is there in Paul’s letter to the churches of Ephesus. Paul layers it on in spades.

“God is so rich in kindness”, he says.

“He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding”, he says.

He wants us to believe in the one who wants to reframe our lives so that when he looks at us he sees his very image and likeness, to be framed by God’s purpose which is to bring everything together, even everything in heaven and everything on earth.

This is positive thinking, positive preaching – to change our minds.

But he doesn’t just want to change our minds. That isn’t good enough. He doesn’t just want us to believe, because that isn’t good enough.

There’s a connection between the words “believe” and “beloved”. Say them often enough and your hear the likeness. John’s gospel talks about the beloved disciple. Believing can be all in the head – it can be about things that have passed. He wants us to be beloved and be-loving. That’s when we believe from the heart. That’s when we are truly in a new frame of mind.

So we need big words, grand gestures in all the small steps of our lives. God is SO rich in kindness. God SHOWERS his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.

What can we do for ourselves? How can we help one another? How can we help one another to flourish? What can we do as believing and beloved?

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? What frame of mind are you in?

When you look in the Daily Mirror, what do you see?

The picture is called Tabula Rasa – which means a “clean slate”. It’s by Cecil Collins. We get a glimpse of a woman brushing her hair. Would she win a beauty contest? I don’t think so. Would she be wishing sho could have her roots done? Would she be counting the wrinkles? I don’t think so. She sees in her daily mirror her life transformed. Staring back at her is beauty with all her emotions of love, joy, gratitude, contentment, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration and awe – the very image of God – heaven and earth coming together in a frame of mind – a frame of mind to praise God.

Achers of space – sermon notes for Easter 2

Into the wound
Easter 2B – Bromborough
Text – John 20:19-31

Jesus said: “In my house there are many rooms” (John 14:2). That is a mark of his hospitality. It’s the sort of thing that any good host will say to his/her guest. “We’ve got loads of room. We can easily make up a bed.” Good hosts say these things because they want their guests to feel at home – they want their guests to stay with them – they look forward to their company.

As Christians we love what Jesus said. We draw strength from the generous hospitality which says “In my house there are many rooms” – we want to dwell in that house where there is so much room and where there are so many openings.

Today’s Easter gospel is set in one room in which there are an abundance of openings – too many for us to get our heads round.

There’s

  • The opening of the door
  • The opening of Jesus’ mouth
  • The opening of Jesus’ hands and side

Each of them begs for an opening up of ourselves.

In Jesus there is so much opportunity for openings and the resurrection begs of us a reformed hospitality within ourselves. An RSVP is called for from each of us.

A little about each of the openings – the openings could well be a whole sermon series – but today a little on each.

Opening the door

The opening of the door –  the disciples had locked themselves in because they were afraid. And Jesus stands amongst them. How did that happen? The open door is a powerful Christian image because of this resurrection appearance.

I have fought a couple of battles in parish ministry. One was about church keys (and who should hold them) and the other was about trying to keep the church open. Like the disciples in today’s gospel the two churches were afraid – they wanted to lock themselves in because they were afraid of their communities.

I don’t know whether you keep this church open. I hope you do. And if you don’t, I hope that you give it some thought allowing Jesus’ words to those first disciples to ring in your ears. “Do not be afraid.” Just imagine the signage – “this church is open” (and all the ambiguity of such a sign!)

There are many metaphorical rooms that we retreat to – in fear, in shame. This gospel story is told time and again to encourage us to open up, to not be so afraid, to not be so ashamed – to let the spaces we move in reverberate to the sound of Jesus’ words.

RSVP

And that takes us to another opening.

Opening his mouth

Jesus’s opening words were “Peace be with you” . Three times in this short passage Jesus greets the disciples with “Peace be with you”. To his anxious and frightened friends he says “peace be with you”. We repeat those words in our greetings in the Peace. “The peace of the Lord be always with you”. (Always try to exchange the peace with at least three people to remember this Easter exchange that we celebrate this morning).

John doesn’t just say that Jesus spoke to his friends. He also tells us that he breathed on them. When he breathed on them they received the Holy Spirit. “The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us.”

Some ancient liturgies included a mouth to mouth kiss as part of the Peace to pass the breath of the Spirit, the breath of the post-resurrection meeting room  – a recall of the intimacy of that meeting with the risen Jesus. (See here.)

And what does that make of our hospitality?

RSVP

The third opening is that demanded by Thomas, doubting Thomas, Thomas the scientist who wouldn’t believe without seeing the evidence. Thomas said “I won’t believe until I see the mark of the nails in his hands, put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side.” And Jesus showed Thomas the nail wounds in his hands, and the spear wound in his side.

I have copied a picture of the wounded side (pictured above) by Jan Richardson from her Painted Prayerbook. It is called “Into the Wound” and I offer it as an invitation for your prayer and wonder. I see it as a tear, as an opening, as a doorway.

Medieval artists gave great attention to Jesus’ wounds. They were often the subject of their art. Such attention for us seems gruesome – but we might be missing an opening.

Eamon Duffy, writing in 15th/16th century England: “the wounds of Christ are the sufferings of the poor, the outcast, and the unfortunate” – according to which acts of charity (foodbanks, nursing, hospitality) become a tending of the living, wounded, corporate body of Christ.

The wound is on his side. Maybe those of us who are on his side can see our own wounds in the wound of Jesus (the ones we’ve inflicted and the ones inflicted on us). Is there an invitation on this door? Is Jesus inviting Thomas, the disciples and all those on his side into the wound, to feel around the space, to know the love, to know the other side?

And is there a reciprocal arrangement, whereby we don’t hide our wounds but invite others into our hurting world so that we might find wholeness and healing? Jesus stands at the door and knocks. If his wound is our way into him, are our wounds his doorway to us?

This is what Jan Richardson writes:

“In wearing his wounds—even in his resurrection—he confronts us with our own and calls us to move through them into new life.

The crucified Christ challenges us to discern how our wounds will serve as doorways that lead us through our own pain and into a deeper relationship with the wounded world and with the Christ who is about the business of resurrection, for whom the wounds did not have the final word.

As Thomas reaches toward Christ, as he places his hand within the wound that Christ still bears, he is not merely grasping for concrete proof of the resurrection. He is entering into the very mystery of Christ, crossing into a new world that even now he can hardly see yet dares to move toward with the courage he has previously displayed.”

Thomas’s RSVP was “My Lord and my God” – his mind blown open, he believed.

Belief in resurrection is often thought of as a rational process. That is how Thomas approached it. But belief isn’t only about our heads. Belief isn’t a rational response but an emotional one. Belief comes from the German word which gives us beloved. “Belief” is “belove” – a believing disciple is a beloving and beloved disciple. When Thomas believes he doesn’t just open his mind, he  opens his mouth (as RSVP), his heart and his very gut where all our anxiety and fear find their home.

Jesus opens the room, he opens his mouth, he opens his wounds. We are invited through these open doorways, into a new life that without this gospel would be unimaginable.

Please RSVP.

The image Into the Wound is copyrighted to Jan Richardson and is used with permission – www.janrichardson.com

How high can you go without falling down? – a sermon and temptation for Lent 3B

A sermon for Guilden Sutton. Lent 3B. March 8th 2015.

On top of the World Trade Centre: how high can you go without falling down?

Well. Top of the morning to you.

Ever hear that expression? An Irish greeting – “top of the morning to you”, meaning “the best of the morning to you” – for which the response is “and the rest of the day to you”.

It’s a bit like our responses, “Peace be with you”, “and also with you”.

So “top of the morning to you” …………………

It’s a greeting of energy isn’t it – someone who’s got up at 5.30 and stolen a march on everyone else. “The top of the morning to you”. It’s the greeting of someone who is full of beans, feeling “on top of the world”: “On top of the world” as opposed to being “under the weather”.

I have a theory that we usually only ever see people who are “on top of the world”. People who are “under the weather” keep themselves to themselves in a self-imposed hiding, unless the weather they’re under is “fine”.

“How are you today?” “I’m fine thanks.”

But we see very few people who are really under the weather – those with depression, those who are drowning are hidden.

We are in a time of discipline. This is Lent when our consciousness of temptation is heightened and we are more likely to respond to the call to resist.

There are a number of temptations for those who feel “on top of the world”. Those “on top of the world” can be so annoying. “Cocky” is the word we’ll often use – the cock, who really is “top of the morning to you”.

Jesus had this temptation when he felt “on top of the world”. Do you remember the story (Luke 4:9-12)?

The devil had Jesus stand on the highest point of the temple and said “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here”. He said “you’ll be all right because God will send his angels to make sure you don’t get hurt.”

Here is the temptation to be wonder-full, the temptation to be Mr High and Mighty, the temptation to be Mr Big. It’s a temptation that takes place on the pinnacle of the temple – on the height of religious experience and achievement. Many people stand at that same spot, on top of the world, on to the height of religious experience and achievement … and they think they’re wonderful, proud that they’ve got there, looking down on others, judging and despising.

I work at Church House. We have staff prayers on Mondays. The person leading those prayers asked us to have some moments of quietness to reflect on how we were doing in Lent, where we were up to in our Lenten discipline. This came as a bit of a shock to me because at that stage, 5 days into Lent, I hadn’t got round to thinking about my Lent.

I had read a reflection that morning on Jesus’ 3rd temptation. That made my decision for me for this Lent – to be disciplined to keep my feet on the ground, to count the blessings of being down to earth, to appreciate the lowly, and to remember who I am when, as sometimes happens, I am lured on to high ground. The question, the very real question for me (and for all of us) is how we behave when we are on high ground, when we are on the moral high ground, when we are on top of the world, how do we behave?

I was reminded of a story by G K Chesterton about a curate who had taken to praying, “not on the common floor with his fellow men, but on the dizzying heights of its spires”. Father Brown goes up to rescue him. He says: “I think there is something rather dangerous about standing on these high places even to pray. Heights were made to be looked at, not to be looked from.”

He tells the curate: “I knew a man who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that, though he was a good man, he committed a great crime. He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.”

You may ask what all this has to do with today’s readings. Paul (1 Cor 1:18-25) asked the Christians at Corinth to consider their own calling. He tells them “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the strong”.

The problems that Paul was addressing in his letter to the Corinthians are outlined in the same chapter. The Corinthian church is a divided community, torn apart by quarrels and people taking sides with Paul, Apollos or Cephas.

Paul’s response is that no one should boast about human leaders (3:21). He tells them that he came to them in weakness, in fear and trembling. “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the  power of God.” (2:4)

So when we’re feeling “top of the world”, on top of our game, doing well, think again. That feeling is the doorway of temptation. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the strong. How will you stand when you’re on top of the world? How will you behave? Will you resist the temptation to look good?

A Baptist minister talks about the robe that he puts on every Sunday. He says that it stands for his professional expertise and training. But he also says that it signals that “we’re all fools for Christ”. He says “I think of myself as a kind of court jester and freelancer in life.” He says that he is always wondering, wondering about God. He is an expert who knows his foolishness and his limits. This makes him a good facilitator of community and friendship.

What are we like? Whether we spend a lot of our time on the high ground, in high places, along corridors of power; or whether we are occasional visitors, what are we like? What do we do? How do we behave?

Do we remember our calling, to be salt of the earth, a calling of the foolish to shame the wise, a calling of the weak to shame the strong?

Do we remain down to earth, with feet on the ground? Or do we pride ourselves on our position?

Do we remain full of wonder? Or do our ways shout to those beneath us, “look at me, how wonderful I am”?

Oh, the temptations of high places and of doing well.

References:
Malcolm Guite. 2015. Word in the Wilderness: 3rd Temptation https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/tag/temptation/
Celia Allison Hahn. 1994. Growing in Authority, Relinquishing Control. The Alban Institute.

So you want to be a sheep then: sermon notes for Christ the King (Sunday and church)

Sermon – Nov 23rd 2014

Christ the King, Birkenhead.

Christ the King Sunday

So you want to be a sheep, do you?

Do you remember PE at school – when teams were picked. “Pick me”. We prayed didn’t we that we wouldn’t be the last person chosen. There are two teams in today’s gospel (Matthew 25:31-end). On the one hand there are Sheep, and there are Goats on the other. The Sheep are the winning team, the Goats are the losers – although the team looks anything other than a winning team.  The Sheep are promoted by the Son of Man – they have a podium position. The Goats are relegated and put out of business.

Who do we want to play for: the Sheep or the Goats?

But then, there are good sheep and bad sheep, according to our OT reading (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24). Ezekiel explains how we can tell them apart when he talks about God’s way of judging them apart. The fat sheep are accused of being violent, abusive and non-caring within their community, pushing their way around. “You pushed”, God says. “You pushed with flank and shoulder. You butted at all the weak animals with all your horns until you got your own way and had it all for yourself. You scattered them far and wide.”

Ezekiel is one of the “lean sheep”, pushed around, butted and scattered – forced into exile.

His complaint rings true through all ages. There always seem to be people who behave like this, like bad sheep. Back then, Ezekiel’s people have been scattered far and wide in a way that reminds us of what happens in our world today, when so many people are dislodged from their families, forced to flee their homes, communities, work and livelihood.

For Ezekiel and his fellow exiles, the problem has been poor leadership (the leaders are referred to as shepherds). The leaders have only been interested in themselves, feeding themselves at the expense of the people, failing to provide any welfare or benefit system. The sick were ignored. The injured were ignored – and the leaders ruled with a rod of iron. That is why the people were scattered. Ezekiel and his fellow exiles had no choice. They had to go. That is largely the case today as well. The villagers under attack by Islamic State have no choice but to flee. The victims of domestic violence who pluck up the courage to leave their situation say “we had no choice, we had to get out”, and others who can’t leave also say “we had no choice, there was nowhere to go.”

Life should have been uncomplicated for them. They should have led settled lives in straightforward communities, in close contact with parents, grandparents and grandchildren. Instead their lives were disrupted.

The calamity of weak and/or violent leadership catches up with people so quickly, at all levels of our lives. It’s the national tragedies which catch our eye in the news – but the tragedies are lived out small in our workplaces, in the playground (bullying) and in our homes (we are used to hearing about domestic abuse, elder abuse and child abuse). The victims are the lean sheep, pushed around, butted, battered, scattered, unfairly and cruelly treated.

We know what happens to them:

to the children who are neglected, who go unheard, who deserve better.

  • Some of our children are treated so badly – maybe their parents caring only for themselves in the manner of the bad shepherds that Ezekiel riles against. Some of the children manage to run away – scatter – and we all know that there are many adults preying on vulnerable youngsters. Why should they be denied a home? Why should they be denied safety? Why should they be denied care? These lambs deserve the care of a good shepherd – by their very nature. Any different and the natural order of things is turned upside down.
  • to those who become refugees, clinging desparately to their identities, crossing boundaries into lives where they’re still not wanted forced to do work which really was beneath their dignity. The skills of doctors being wasted as they become cleaners. Fully trained nurses having to take any job they could find – zero hours contracts. The dream is somewhere safe to escape to – somewhere you’ll be wanted for what you can offer, but then discover that you’re fenced in from making the border crossing. Some become desparate – casting out to sea with a vague hope that they might make it, but fearful of other wild creatures who lurk in the deep

There is a charity called Eaves which runs the Poppy Project. They report Ellie’s story (which I didn’t use in the sermon):

When Ellie, 32, describes the first part of her life, she races through the disturbing details in a neutral tone; the problems she experienced as a child and a young woman are not what makes her angry. She grew up in a slum outside Kampala in Uganda. She was sent to live with another family when she was seven and sexually abused by the head of the household; when she turned 15, she was forced to marry him. He was violent, so when a neighbour offered to help her escape to a new life abroad, she agreed.

She was taken by plane to the UK with a group of six other women. Ellie thought that she was going to work as a cleaner, but on the day she arrived, she was driven to the home of a white man who told her she would have to work as a prostitute to pay back her debts for the passport and air travel. For two years she was locked in a house with the other women, and periodically driven to customers’ homes.

She only escaped when a sympathetic client gave her £60 and explained how to get to London. In London, she met a man who allowed her to stay with him, but who quickly began to ask for sex in exchange for shelter. One night when he was violently abusive, she called the police.

This is the moment, in a life story of unmitigated misfortune, when you might expect that things would begin to improve. However, it marked the beginning of a new wave of difficulty, and this is where she begins to get angry. She was taken to hospital, but not treated; later the police took her to a police station, where she was fingerprinted and told she had no visa. Since she had only been given a passport to hold for a few seconds when she passed border control at the airport, she knew nothing about visas.

“They were asking each other: ‘Did she come here legally or illegally?’ The way they were talking was very intimidating. They didn’t ask about the attack. They were more interested in why I was staying in the country without a visa.” The man who hit her was not arrested, but she was taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre. “I’d never been in detention before. It felt like a prison: being locked up, eating your food at certain times, sleeping at certain times. Most of the time you can’t go outside; you can barely see daylight.”

The other inmates laughed at her when they found out she had called the police, and told her she was stupid to have expected them to help her. She was quickly put on suicide watch because she told staff that she would kill herself rather than be deported back to a country where she would be in danger from her husband and her traffickers. “They wouldn’t let me buy tinned food in case I took the tin and cut myself; they watched me while I showered in case I hanged myself,” she says. For a while she regretted having escaped from her trafficker, and thought returning to her existence as a sex slave might be preferable.

It was only when she was in Yarl’s Wood that she realised she had been trafficked. “So many of the women I met in detention had been trafficked. I don’t think the police who interviewed me knew about trafficking. They were more interested in catching someone for being an illegal migrant than in helping someone who has called for help. All they were talking about was deporting me,” she says.

It was only when a sympathetic guard suggested that she put her name down for legal aid that she was put in touch with Eaves. Her asylum claim on the grounds of trafficking was rejected initially, but with Eaves’ help, this was overturned.

She wishes there was greater awareness of trafficking throughout the system. If border staff had been on the lookout for people-trafficking when she arrived in the UK, she would have been prevented from coming into the country. “If they had stopped me on the border, I would have been so much happier; I wouldn’t have done all the bad things that I was made to do. But I came here and I was turned into a prostitute.”

She is calm when we speak; very articulate and very angry about what has happened to her. “Putting trafficked people in prison – that is the worst part of it. You have gone through bad times, and then you find yourself in detention, told you are going to be deported back to the traffickers. That man is still there and he is still bringing in women. That’s why I’m so upset.”

Pushed around, butted, battered and scattered. In exile with a longing for the care of something like a good shepherd.

Tuesday is White Ribbon Day – a day for men to pledge to “never commit, condone or remain silent or remain silent about men’s violence against women” – tantamount to a commitment to playing a proper part in home, family and community.

Good sheep don’t push their way round. Good sheep aren’t selfish. Good sheep aren’t frightening.

Good sheep have good shepherds who they follow. The people of God have had many shepherds. Some have been good, many of them have been bad (Ezekiel is speaking from experience). Ezekiel looks forward to the time when the bad shepherd has had his day, looking forward to the time of good shepherding when the scattered sheep will be gathered in good grazing land.

Jesus shows himself as the good shepherd. It is how he describes himself as the good shepherd, and that is why he is interested in the sheep. His place is with them, not with the goats. At times, at the worst of times, his sheep look awful – and no wonder, because they are the ones pushed around, butted and scattered. They are hungry, thirsty, naked and sick. They are strangers and prisoners. Good sheep who have responded to the shepherd’s call.

If we are sheep, how do we play our part amongst them? Do we act big or play gentle? Are we one of them, or are we acting the goat?

Acknowledgements:

Jesus is a very disruptive influence: a sermon on Matthew 10:34

Notes for a sermon for Ashton Hayes for June 22nd 2014

Fresco in the "Visoci Decani" in  Kosovo
Fresco in the “Visoci Decani” in Kosovo

Text: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth: I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

Teachers are busy writing school reports. Here’s Jesus’ report from the autumn term:

  • Resistant materials – A – excellent in woodwork section, and obviously well supported by the help and stimulation he gets at home.
  • Maths – F – Lacks basics. Keeps muttering about “Three in One” and “I and the Father are one”.
  • Graphic communications – D – Prefers to draw with a stick in the sand than to use pencil and paper.
  • Physical Education – D- Jesus has been a troublemaker. He refuses instruction in swimming, and is surprised that he sinks when he tries to walk on the water.
  • Overall – it saddens us to say that Jesus is a disruptive influence in the class. He flouts uniform regulations by turning up in sandals. He chooses his friends unwisely.

Another report was found by Monty Python.

Pupil’s name: God

  • Biology – 28% – weak, thinks he knows it all. Constantly rude about Darwin.
  • Domestic Science – 54% – a useful cook, the pillar of salt will come in handy for a long time.
  • Games – will not row, hates games and once parted the waters of the swimming pool during a match against the old boys which was both unsporting and dangerous. He can still do press ups.
  • Progress and conduct: “I am afraid that I am severely disappointed in God’s work. He has shown no interest in rugger, asked to be excused prayers and moves in a mysterious way. His attentions to the carpentry teacher’s fiancée caused her to leave a term early, and there are several nasty rumours flying around.

There is no getting round the fact that Jesus is a disruptive influence. As he says himself in today’s gospel reading: “I didn’t come to bring peace. I  came to bring a sword.” (Matt 10:34)

Here’s trouble and an affront that we overlook at our peril. This is challenging behaviour.

His mother was no better. Her song (from Luke’s songbook and gospel), Luke 1:46-55, aka Magnificat, was banned for many years. The authorities in British ruled India, and in 1980’s Guatemala and Argentina banned the words from being read out loud because they were too revolutionary.

Mary knew that Jesus was not good news for everyone. For every blessing that she sang there was an answering curse on those who thought they had it all. She sang of the one who looks with favour on the lowly, and who scatters those who are proud in their innermost thoughts, the one who lifts up the lowly, but brings down rulers from their thrones, who fills the hungry with good things, but sends the rich away empty.

Woe betide us if we become proud, rich and powerful. According to her song, we will be scattered, brought down and sent away empty.

Mary too is disruptive and dangerous for the authorities. It is no wonder that she is silenced by the authorities from time to time. Jesus takes after his mother and father. Blame the parents, if you like.

50 years ago, this weekend, three young men went to investigate a church that had been burnt out. The church was Mount Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba County in Mississippi. This was a building that was being used to register black voters in the States in what was called Freedom Summer, 50 years ago, in 1964 in the civil rights movement.

The state authorities were bitterly opposed to the voter registration campaign, believing that blacks shouldn’t be able to vote. You can feel the authorities bristling with the arrival of these three men: Michael Schwermer, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. The authorities were sheltering the culprits of the chapel burning. Their crime was about to be exposed by these men who had come to disrupt their peace.

Deputy Sherriff Cecil Price followed the men as they drove back to their home in Lauderdale County. He intercepted them just on the county line and ordered them into his car. He then drove them to a deserted piece of land where they were met by two cars full of Ku Klux Klan members. They beat, shot and killed the three men, 50 years ago this weekend, June 21st 1964.

The lives of the three are commemorated in a stained glass window in the chapel of Cornell University. Their faith is celebrated in the words of the gospel song made famous by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez – “we shall overcome”.

Are they martyrs for us? Or were they disruptive and dangerous? What do we think? Are we on the side of the Klansmen, or the poor of the earth?

Those three didn’t bring peace. Neither did they bring a sword. They brought beatings, shootings, burnings and violence. They didn’t bring those things themselves. They brought those things on themselves. They engaged the powers and suffered their might.

Does this help us to understand what Jesus said when he said, “I didn’t come to bring peace, I came to bring a sword”? In the cold light of day these words strike us as difficult. They challenge us and disrupt us. The more we burn with passion, the hotter we get under the collar, the more our hearts burn within us, the more understandable they become.

What good is gentle Jesus, meek and mild in a world that is crying out for disruption? The prophet Jeremiah complains about the false prophets who claim that there is peace when there is no peace. (Jer 6:14)

No, Jesus comes with a sword. He is disruptive and he is divisive. The authorities expected him to go one way, and he went the other – to the lost, the last and the least. His words were salvation to some, but offensive to others.

The words of Mary’s song provide commentary on Jesus as well as his father: he looked with favour on the lowly, and scattered those who are proud in their innermost thoughts, lifting up the lowly, while bringing down rulers from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things, while sending the rich away empty.

He never used the sword.

The sword is metaphorical. It is an effect. The sword is what happens as a consequence of his love. People turn on one another and on him. Even families and friends turn against each other. He is disruptive and unsettling for us all.

He didn’t bring a sword but he brought a sword on himself. The political and religious authorities got him in the end. Jesus never drew a sword – he loved through the challenge and disruption. And he told his followers to put their sword away, as we recall from the incident in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Matt 26:51ff)

When Jesus said “I haven’t come to bring peace, but a sword” he was preparing his followers for mission, so that they might be disruptive in a world crying out for disruption. He was preparing them for a dangerous mission which could bring disruption, persecution and even death.

What is true of Jesus is true of the church.

Just some times we have to stand against the crowd – like those who were conscientious objectors in the war 100 years ago, like those who protest when they see injustice being done, like when we side with the scapegoat, the sick, the prisoner, the stranger.

It just might be that we have to stand alone – our friends may desert us, our families may turn on us, we may lose our cherished place in the community.

We stand for love and we overcome evil with good. We can’t pretend there is peace where there is none. We haven’t come to bring peace, but a possible sword on ourselves.

So I wonder what it will say on my final report. Will it say that I have been a troublemaker? Will it say that my behaviour has been challenging? Will it say that I have been disruptive for the sake of those who suffer in the way things are?

Or will it say, “he was just nice”? What good is that, only being nice? Being nice just doesn’t cut it does it?

References:

Thanks to http://www.pleacher.com/forwards/forwards/jcreport.html for Jesus’ school report.
Thanks to http://www.churchinacircle.com/2013/12/29/marys-subversive-song/ for the ideas about Mary’s subversive song.

Leaving us for good – a sermon for Ascension Day

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Gee Cross.

Introduction

Our two readings come from the end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of the Book of Acts. (Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:44-53)

Luke ends his Part One and begins his Part Two with a celebration of Jesus’ Ascension.

At first glance it looks like these two volumes are addressed to a particular person called Theophilus.  But Theophilus is a strange name. Translated, it means “God lover” – which leaves us with a question. Are these two books addressed to one person called Theophilus, or to all “God lovers”, including ourselves?

And the story of the Ascension is one that causes us all sorts of difficulties. It’s a story that stretches the dimensions of our lives, where earth and heaven connect – a tall story that is difficult to fathom.

40 days and nights have passed since Easter Day (40 days and nights!). Those 40 days were packed with Jesus’s appearances and his talk of the kingdom of God. The 40 days  end with this – a blessing, a promise and a withdrawal as Jesus was carried into heaven, carried out of the sight of the disciples on a cloud.

So what?

Flight paths

It seems like only yesterday that we were landing at Heathrow after visiting our son and his girlfriend in the Philippines. It is actually 40 days and nights – we landed on Easter Day, having been on a plane for 17 hours. The flight path reads like a where’s where of the world’s trouble spots.

Bosnia, Beirut, Bangkok, Iraq, Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia etc etc – flying into Manila, regarded as the second most dangerous city in the world.

How weird was it? Flying 38000 feet in the airspace above those trouble spots, with all their tensions, sufferings, betrayals, poverty and uncertainty, as if they weren’t there. We were flying over deep divides and no go areas as if they didn’t exist. We were like birds flying over reality and missing all that counts in human life. It was as if we were travelling in a totally different dimension.

(Another example would be our city’s flyovers)

For the last 40 days and nights it has been back to earth with a bang!

Which, I suspect is where we belong. We are, after all, Adam – humans made from the earth, to walk the earth, with our feet of clay. And for that, we believe that God loves us – and we may believe that is where God wants us to be – down to earth, earthy and earthed.  That seems to be the message that Luke is leaving us “God lovers” as he describes Jesus’s goodbye to his disciples, as he leaves them us to be “witnesses … to the ends of the earth”.

Grounded as birds without wings

I don’t know whether any of you have read Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernieres. I’ll try to describe the story without giving anything away for any of you who want to read it.

The story is set in innocence at the turn of the 20th century in a town called Eskibahce in south-western modern-day Turkey, then a part of the waning Ottoman Empire. The village potter, Iskander, a Muslim, makes clay bird whistles for his son, Abdul, and his Christian friend, Nico. Their whistles make different bird song. One is a blackbird, and the other is a robin. They take on the nicknames of their birdsong – Blackbird and Robin.

They are birds who fly over the hills overlooking their town. They play at flying, but, of course they can only fly in their imagination.

Reality soon becomes quite different, as the population of the town gets caught in events. They find themselves caught in the tensions between Greek nationalism and Turkish nationalism which destroyed the fabric of the town. The boys are of course, birds without wings, and they are caught up in the violence of the conflict. There is no way that they can fly over their divisions. They are earthy and they are earthed – and they suffer the consequences of down to earth historical realities. Such realities can only be overcome by living through them.

We all have flights of fancy, don’t we? But at the end of the day there is no escaping the day to day challenges of our lives. We cannot rise above them, but have to engage with them. We can’t ignore them, because that would be irresponsible and careless.  We have to live with our circumstances, and through the events of our lives.

That is what Jesus leaves us to do. That is what Jesus leaves us for.

Left behind for good

The picture that Luke paints for us is a farewell scene, which might remind of us other partings, and snapshots of farewell greetings with the waving of hands, the dabbing of tears, the heartache and the parting words.

Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends, but this goodbye scene is so different. It is not tinged in sadness, but explodes with joy, because Jesus’ parting words are full of promise. The promise is that the disciples, the God lovers, would receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. That promise must have helped them to look forward with hope instead of looking backwards with sadness. The gift of the Holy Spirit transforms all our partings and farewells since that good bye described by Luke and celebrated by us today on this Ascension Day. The gift of the Holy Spirit is a blessing for all those who mourn. It is the help we need to live through what seems to be the dead ends of our lives. It is the comfort to ….. It is the strength to overcome.

The disciples were indeed left behind, but left with joy “continually in the temple blessing God”. They were left behind for good.

The good they were left behind for was surely to live through their lives as witnesses, in a way that God’s blessing shone through. Their lives weren’t easy. They faced hardships, imprisonment, persecution and death. They were hard pressed on every side, but they lived through those times.

The good they were left behind for was to convey the spirit of Jesus, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to prisoners, to help the blind to see and to let the oppressed go free. (Luke 4:18f)

The good they were left behind for was to live through all of this, to keep their feet to the ground, to take the long walk through difficulties to freedom, down to earth, with feet of clay.

Like those God lovers, we have the same blessing – treasure in clay, earthenware pots. Is the challenge that Luke addressing to his dear readers just this: to be down to earth witnesses for all the earth by living through the tensions and challenges of our lives.

Have we been left behind for good? Has the church been left behind for good?

But this isn’t saddening. There is no reason to lose heart because of it.

This is the great farewell. This is the goodbye that gives all goodbyes hope and joy. This is the goodbye which spells out its meaning. “God be with you”, his spirit is with us.

Therefore, we go. We go in peace to love and serve the Lord, realising that it is now up to us.

Adapting a prayer of St Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but us,
no hands, no feet on earth but ours.
Ours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world,
ours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
ours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Ours are the hands, ours are the feet,
ours are the eyes, we are his body.
Christ has no body now but us,
no hands, no feet on earth but us,
Ours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but us.

We are left behind for good, with his blessing and spirit.

Cerezo Barredo’s weekly gospel illustration