Compassion Attraction

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Today in the church calendar we reach the end of the year.  In the church’s pattern of readings, called the lectionary, this has been Year A, and the focus of the readings has been on the Gospel of Matthew.

 

And the last reading from the Gospel of Matthew is a picture of judgement.  Jesus tells a story about the end of time when Christ returns in glory and there is a great judgement, when everyone is measured by their deeds.  And what makes the difference in separating one from another is compassion.  Those who are given in place in the kingdom are those who welcome strangers, who provide for those who are in need, who care for those who are suffering, who visit those who are imprisoned by their circumstances.  All those who serve people in the community in this way are serving Christ.  And the converse applies:  all those who fail to help people in need are failing Christ.

 

In a few minutes, we are going to baptise F.

 

F told me that what attracted him to Christianity was what he had observed for himself, the way that Christians reached out to people of whatever creed or colour and gave them assistance.  So it is a wonderful and amazing coincidence that the Gospel Reading set for today encourages that compassion and care.

 

And now F wants to make his commitment to following Christ.  It is a very important step.  Today, he becomes a Christian and a member of the church, the body of Christ.  Today he is washed clean of sin and refreshed in the water of life.

 

I will be asking all of you to give your support to F as he is baptised.  So pray for him, now and in the coming weeks.  He will continue to study and learn about the Christian faith as he prepares for Confirmation by the Bishop.  Help him with that.  Get to know him.

 

Today, F will start to receive Holy Communion because he is “desirous of being Confirmed”, as the Canons put it.  That is another big step.  He will receive the body and blood of Christ; he will be united with Christ and nurtured by Christ.  God is no longer separate, out there, but within him, part of him.

 

And part of us.  And because we are committed to Christ, part of the Body of Christ, nurtured by the body and blood of Christ, we are called to be compassionate in the way that Jesus describes.

 

Today’s reading is a reminder to us about the way we treat other people.  How can we as a church be more compassionate?  How can we welcome other people with generosity and hospitality?  How can we make the church a place where people feel safe, welcome and at home?  We were looking at that in the Advent Course that began on Tuesday.

 

Next week, Advent begins.  We turn to face the Coming of Christ, born as a baby in Bethlehem, and the Coming of Christ at the end of the age, whenever that may be.  Next week, Year B begins with its focus on the Gospel of Mark.

 

F is taking a new step in baptism, and we are encouraged to go a little deeper into living out our baptismal promises.  We do this together, in the name of Christ.

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Death & Departing

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At this time of year, we do a lot of remembering.

 

Last week, we had our service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving when we remembered those who have died.  We invite the families of those whose funerals we have taken – and anyone else who has lost family and friends – and we read out the names of those who are on their hearts and minds.  Before I came, there would also have been a proper All Souls service, where Mass would have been said for all those who are on our list – the list of people we remember week by week in our intercessions at the anniversaries of their deaths.

 

When we read out the names of those who have died, we are remembering them before God, putting them once more into God’s hands, praying that they will have peace and rest and praying that we will have peace and rest in our memories of them.  Yes, it can be painful; it can be very intense; it brings back memories; it reminds us of our loss.  And we give our pain and loss to God, and ask God to touch our wounds and heal them.

 

Today is Remembrance Sunday, and we are remembering all those who died as a result of war, whether family members or not.  This includes members of the armed forces and all the civilian casualties caught in the crossfire, of whom there are many millions.

 

War is terrible.  So many young men and women have been killed in the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.  And the physical and mental injuries caused to those who survive can have a huge and continuing impact on peoples’ lives and on their families’ lives.   Violence is never the answer to conflict.  When people fall out and when nations fall out, war is not the solution.  So Remembrance Sunday is a reminder to pray for peace, and to encourage our politicians always to go for peaceful solutions to international problems.  It’s not the fault of those who go to war.  They are sent by the politicians – and they must take the blame.

 

Those who serve in the armed forces, those who go to war, are serving their country, and I am sure that many of them do with good motives.  They are the people we are remembering today.  We know that hundreds of men from Bensham were killed in the First World War.  We have a number of objects given to the church to remember some of them.  And then many others were killed or injured in the Second World War, in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the rest.

 

All this recollection of those who have died raises big questions for us and a huge challenge.

 

The questions are about what death is like, and in particular what life after death is like.  As Christians, we believe in life after death.  We believe Jesus rose again from the dead, and we too will rise on the Last Day, when Jesus returns.  That’s exactly what it says in today’s second reading from the epistle to the Thessalonians.  Paul teaches that in the Resurrection our bodies will be entirely transformed.  We will be fully alive with Christ, renewed to live with him with energy and vitality – life in all its fullness – living in a redeemed and re-created world, in a new heaven and a new earth.  That will all come about at the End of Time.

 

The Bible is less clear about what happens between death and the Final Resurrection.  There are hints and suggestions here and there, but it takes some skill to pick out the key elements.  It seems that those who have died go to a temporary resting place.  Somewhere along the line there is judgement about our lives on earth.  The righteous – we might say the saints – go straight to be with Christ, praising God.  It may be that those who have died get another chance to commit themselves to Christ – I certainly hope so.  And that’s as much as we can say based on the New Testament.  There is so much that we don’t know.

 

I would say, from my own experience, that there is consciousness in the next life, the life in between.  I have heard so many stories of people who have experienced the presence of a departed loved one.  They know us and they care about us.  I believe the veil between heaven and earth is very thin.  But I can’t prove any of that.

 

The challenge for us is to face our own mortality.  When we remember those who have died, it is also a reminder that we too will die one day.  And that gives us choices to make about our own lives, about who we are, how we want to live, how we want to be remembered; and choices about our dying.  I pray that I will make a good death, and for me, a good death means being at peace with God and being at peace with my family.  Being at peace with God means knowing that God has forgiven me and loves me and that I have done my best to be the best Meg Gilley God created me to be.  Being at peace with my family means having resolved any differences and having told them how much I love them.  A good death also means for me having some control over the process – personally, I don’t want to be kept alive by medical processes when there is no quality of life – though I realise that once I’m in that position, I might see it differently.  I want to have all the appropriate sacraments at the end of life: confession, Holy communion, anointing for death.  And I need to have that all written down, so that the family know my wishes.  I also need to renew my will so that it’s up to date and expresses my wishes regarding my worldly possessions, including how some of that can be used to make the world a better place.  All of those things will help me to go peacefully whenever the time comes, in so far as I have any control over things.  In the end, there is such a lot that it out of my control, and I am at peace with that.

 

I tell you all this as a challenge to think about what a good death means for you.  It’s not morbid to do that, but a sensible and spiritual thing to do.

 

We have been thinking about the deaths of loved ones and of those killed in war and what that means for our own living and dying.  In doing that we are saying: Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

Endure!

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In 1890, this area was just fields, with a few large houses set in lovely gardens.  Then land was need to build homes for the workers coming to the new industries along the Tyne.  The Tyneside flats were put up, and the population increased rapidly.  In 1897, Henry Chadwick Windley came to be Curate-in-Charge of this parish and proclaim the good news of Christ here in Bensham.  He had a vision for a church to be built as a cathedral for the working people of this parish.  This meant getting various people on board, including the bishops of Durham and Newcastle, the architect, the very prayerful William Searle Hicks, who prayed over the plans and imbued the designs with his prayers and reflection.  Then there was the business of raising the considerable funds required to build, and the joy when Miss Emily Matilda Easton agreed to put up a considerable amount of money.  The foundation stone was laid in 1900, and three years later this building was consecrated.  It is a building designed to speak to the people of God and where the people could speak to God.

 

I am often here on my own to pray or potter around doing jobs – I love being in this church, because it does speak to me so powerfully of God.  And Durham Cathedral also has that effect on me.

 

I imagine that the Temple in Jerusalem would have been like that.  People went to the Temple for the festivals, to make their sacrifices, to worship God.  And maybe they too looked at it and got that sense of God’s presence.  It represented God’s presence with the people.  It was the place where you went to encounter God.

 

Jesus and the disciples went to Jerusalem for the festival and they were stirred by the building and everything it stood for.  But Jesus warned them about putting all their hope in the building.  We often say that the church is not the building, it is the people.  And Jesus was trying to move them away from thinking about their faith in terms of a building.  He told them that the Temple would be destroyed.  And sure enough, some 40 years later, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans.  But Jesus also needed to teach them a bigger truth, namely that He, Jesus, is the temple, the place where God abides, the place where God comes to be with the people.  And he is the temple that will be destroyed when he is put to death on the cross.

 

As a church, we need to remember that the church is not the building.  It is a beautiful church building, and it does act as a signal of God’s presence here in Bensham, but the church is us, gathered here, and the future of the church in Bensham depends on us, not on this building.   If we look to the long term, I would say that we will only be able to keep the building if we become stronger as the church, the people of God.  And to do that, we need to go out of the building and get alongside the community, make friends in the community, and live out God’s love for the people of Bensham.

 

For a lot of people round here, they find the church scary.  They don’t want to come through the doors.  I meet children in the streets and they tell me this is a place of ghosts.

 

Jesus’ disciples were clearly shocked to think about the destruction of the Temple.  It was part of their tradition that the Messiah would come to the Temple Mount to save Israel from its oppressors.  If there was no Temple, how would the end play out?

 

Later on, the disciples came for a private words with Jesus.  They want to know what it will be like when Jesus comes as the Messiah and what the end of the age will be like.  Jesus tells them not to get distracted by the end of the world.  There will be trouble ahead, there will be wars, there will be natural disasters.  But it’s no good trying to interpret these to discern the coming of the Messiah.

 

But Jesus gave them some key advice.  The disciples – and that includes us – need to endure.  They – and us – need to keep going whatever happens, however hard it gets.  The disciples were going to face persecution.  Jesus was trying to teach them how to live in peace in a world of war.

 

For Christians in many parts of the world today, being a Christian is really difficult.  They are discriminated against, abused, persecuted, killed.  This happens now in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sudan.  We are so lucky!  We are not persecuted for our faith.  We should support fellow Christians who are suffering.  And we should make our faith count.  Endurance for us is hanging on in there when nobody cares; it is going the extra mile to show that we care for our community; it is being seen to follow Jesus when the world can’t see the point.  Jesus wants us to proclaim the kingdom – that means living in our world with Jesus in charge, doing everything we can to make this world the place where Jesus is king.  Because we are not persecuted, we should be all the more eager to do God’s work here in Bensham.  That is how people will judge this church, when they see us out there building the kingdom.

 

For example, In God’s kingdom, everyone is treated with respect.  In God’s kingdom, there is no sexual harassment, because women and junior staff and interns are safe. In God’s kingdom, bad behaviour is challenged.  In God’s kingdom, children are treated with respect and people don’t undermine them with constant criticism.  In God’s kingdom, asylum seekers and refugees are treated with respect, and people support them and value them.

 

What can we do to BE the church?  What can we do to be SEEN as the church?  If people won’t come in, how do we open our doors and the doors of our hearts and get out there?

The Way Ahead

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Twenty years ago I went on retreat to St Oswald’s Priory at Sleights.  I was looking forward to the talks by the spiritual writer Martin Israel – I had been to one of his retreats before.  As time got nearer, however, Martin Israel was ill and he wasn’t going to be able to lead the retreat.  The nuns at St Oswald’s asked their chaplain to step in, and so the retreat was led by Fr Edmund Wheat SSM.  So, given the timescale, I guess he picked out a set off addresses he had used previously.  The retreat turned out to be about ministry through the experience of Moses.  It was once of those examples of God-coincidences.  I had been booked on the retreat for some time, long before I knew that I would be exploring my vocation to ministry and that the selection conference would take place a month later.  And then the subject of the retreat was about ministry – it was exactly the right thing at the right time.

 

The retreat took us through the life of Moses, just as we have been doing over the last 8 weeks, step by step from the burning bush to the liberation of the Israelites and the long slow perilous journey through the wilderness, incident by incident.  And this, Fr Edmund said, is what ministry is like, representing God to the people and the people to God, walking alongside them, praying for them, anguishing over them.  Moses was not perfect, not by any means – he was full of flaws, but God used him anyway.  I burst into tears.  It was as if God was telling me directly that ministry for me would be walking with the people into the wilderness.  And so it has been.  I accepted the calling in the full knowledge that it would be hard.  For all that, it is a great privilege.

 

The story of Moses, therefore, has shaped me as a priest, an important part of my calling to walk alongside, to serve, to take on difficult challenges.  I have enjoyed doing a special study of Moses over these last few weeks so that I could bring him to you and make connections for you, just as Edmund Wheat did for me in June 1997.

 

Today, we come to the end of the story of Moses.  He is an old man now.  He climbs up to the top of Mount Nebo, and from there he can see Jericho and all the world around, and if it had been a clear day, he might have seen as far as Jerusalem.  This is the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey, the homeland promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the land to which the Israelites have been travelling these many years.  Moses can see it all.  But Moses himself cannot go there.  God has forbidden it.  He has walked with the people through all their trials and tribulations, but there is no fulfilment for him, no reward of reaching the final goal.  His job was done.  He had brought them so far, but he could go no further.

 

Moses could see the future for Israel, he could see where they would all be going, but this was as far as he himself went.  He had to let go of the future, and let the people go without him into the future.  There is something that feels just so sad in that!  Moses dies and is buried in the valley, and the way the story is told, it is almost as if God himself arranges the dying and the laying to rest.  There was no monument, no place where people could come at the anniversaries to lay flowers or pebbles.  The people have to let Moses go, just as much as he has to let them go, and they have to let go of him entirely.  And as Fr Edmund said, that is what the ending of ministry is like.  When a priest goes, the people have to let her go, they can’t keep calling her back for this or that special occasion.  And the priest needs to let the people go and move on to the next stage of life.  Moses’ memorial is the future for his people.

 

The important thing was that the Israelites had a future.  They knew where they were going.  They were on the verge of the next stage of their life as the people of God.  They had a new leader: Moses had commissioned Joshua to take over and lead the people from now on.  Different leaders are needed at different stages of a nation’s life.

 

Though it was sad that Moses couldn’t go with them, he had given them that future.  They had a way ahead, and that was a tremendous gift.  And he had also given them a history, a story about where they had come from and how they were God’s chosen people and how God had liberated them from oppression and violence.  They had an identity as a people with a shared story, an identity as God’s people, and a shared vision of the future.  However flawed Moses was, God had used him to give them that.

 

Well, I’m not going just yet.  You’ve still got me for a few years more, God willing.  But the story of Moses gives us a sense of what we need to do together before I do move on.  We need to develop a vision for the future.  I want to be able to stand at the top of Bensham Bank, look down and see your promised land.  The ministry of Moses wasn’t just about him; it was what he did with the people.  Ministry isn’t what the vicar does, it’s what the church does in the name of Christ.  Where are we going as the people of God in this place?

That’s how the light gets in

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There is Moses, there is God, and there are the people of Israel, and the relationship between them is constantly being re-negotiated.

 

God has chosen the Israelites.  He is the god of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.  But in all their years of Egypt, the people lost touch with their God, and the story of the wilderness is a story of learning over and over again who God is for them and how they can trust the one true God, the invisible God, who comes and goes.  But every now and then, they lose it completely.  They want to replace God with a statue of a calf, and that makes God really angry with them.

 

The relationship between God and the Israelites makes us think about the relationship between God and the church.  How does God look at us, do you think?  How do you think God feels about us?

 

Then there is the relationship between Moses and the Israelites.  He has to convince them to follow him, to leave the oppression and violence of Egypt for the uncomfortable journey through the wilderness to the uncertain future of freedom in a promised land.  Moses is their leader.  Moses solves their problems.  When things go wrong, they blame Moses.  Moses stands between the people and God.  Moses brings them God’s promises and God’s instructions.  Moses pleads for them when God is angry.  There is an extent to which they begin to put Moses on a pedestal, so that when he disappears up the mountain for too long, they need to find something else to put on that pedestal.

 

But today’s story is about the relationship between God and Moses.  Right from the start, Moses was a bit of a reluctant player.  God reveals himself to Moses in a pretty awesome way in the burning bush, but it is all too much for Moses.  He gave excuses to God about why he was entirely the wrong person to lead God’s people into liberation.  The relationship is pretty one-sided to begin with.  God knows Moses personally, but God’s desire for friendship with Moses far exceeds Moses’ love for God.  Moses also has to learn to trust in God, but in an even deeper way.  And Moses has to discover that with God’s help he can do amazing things.

 

Today’s story marks a point in the deepening of the relationship between God and Moses.  Moses wants to go beyond being known by God.  Now he wants to know God for himself.  “Show me your glory!” he asks of God.  And that’s how it starts – wanting to know God, the desire to get a little closer.  After that comes the asking: please God, show me your glory, I pray.

 

And God explains how no human being can look at the face of God and live, God’s glory is just too much for human kind to bear.  It’s like looking at the sun – you can’t do it, you know the sun is there and you appreciate the light and warmth, but you can’t stare at the heart of the sun any more than you can behold the face of God.  The only way in which Moses can see something of who God is, is for him to go in to a narrow crevice in the rock of the mountain.  There, God’s hand will protect him and he will be able to glimpse God’s back as he passes by.

 

So this is how Moses comes to experience God, squeezed into a cave, with the weight of the mountain above him, peering through a crack.   And this is where he meets God, up close and personal, in the closest and most intimate encounter of his life.   Rays of light shine through the crack, so bright, so glorious.  But it is only as God passes by and Moses looks back, can he see that yes, that was the presence of God.  The moment itself is too intense, he is just watching and listening and feeling and experiencing.  Afterwards, when the presence of God has moved on, he can assess what he has seen and recall his own interior reaction.

 

And that is how we see God, through the cracks in our lives.  The light shines into our darkness, and when it’s all over, we realise that God was there, and we are staring at his disappearing back.  It’s like the Leonard Cohen song “Anthem”: There is a crack in everything – That’s how the light gets in, that’s how the light gets in.

 

Moses’ experience of God helps him grow in faith and wisdom.  It gives him the assurance that God is with him and with the Israelites on this perilous journey to the promised land, with all its hazards and difficulties.  But it is never just for his own sake.  His meeting with God spills over to the people.  From this point, his face shines with the reflected light of God.  It helps the Israelites in their walk with God.  Moses has to wear a veil, his face is so bright, and the people cannot bear so much light.  Moses first encountered God in a burning bush.  He has come a long way.  Now the light shines through him.

 

The story of the developing relationship between Moses and God makes us think about the relationship between God and each of us individually.  What is your relationship with God?  How has it changed and developed over the years?  What kind of a relationship do you desire to have with God?

 

There are times in our lives when we turn to God and say: Show me your glory! Teach me a little more. Let me know you a little better.  That is the kind of prayer that God longs for.  That is the kind of prayer that God will respond to.  God is careful not to give us too much too soon, because we would be blinded by his overpowering light.  But it starts with the longing, the deep desire, the crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

Betrayal

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The journey through the wilderness was a journey about meeting God, growing in faith, losing faith, and having to start all over again.  The Israelites were in the spiritual wilderness as well as a physical desert.  No wonder it took 40 years in the end.  And our spiritual journies can take a lifetime.

 

Every time there was a problem, the Israelites had to learn once again to trust in God, to have faith, to learn once more that God loved them and wanted to be in a relationship with them.

 

And today’s Old Testament story is another occasion.  This time, however, their failure is also a real act of betrayal.

 

Moses had gone up the mountain to encounter God and receive the stone tables of the Ten Commandments.  He was gone a long time, a very long time, and the people were becoming impatient.  They assumed Moses had gone for good, fallen down a cliff, or been consumed by the fire of God or something.  Moses had gone.  So who was going to lead them?  What was going to intercede between them and God?  And with Moses gone, did that mean that their relationship with God had ended?

 

So they asked Aaron for a god, a proper god like the gods they had known in Egypt, one they could see and touch and make sense of.  What use was there in an invisible god whom you couldn’t see and who just comes and goes in his own time, and you have no control over?

 

So Aaron makes the image of a calf and they plan a great inauguration party.

 

But God, the one true God, know what is happening, and he is furious! He sends Moses away and he’s getting ready to destroy the Israelites all in one go.

 

Moses prays and he prays hard, asking God to think again, reminding God of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel, pleading for forgiveness.

 

“And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

 

Prayer made all the difference!  That’s worth remembering for a start.

 

And the challenge to us from these stories of the Israelites in the wilderness is to look at our own faith in God. Think about the times when you haven’t entirely trusted in God.  Remember when you have betrayed God by placing your trust in other things, probably human things.  Recall the times when God has felt absent and you haven’t gone to look for him.

 

These stories are a reflection of our own weaknesses, our own lack of faith.  They are a call to us to turn to God once again, to renew our faith and trust and to grow in faith and hope and love.

Ten to Two

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We have been following the Israelites along their journey, from their liberation from slavery and oppression in Egypt, through the waters and into the wilderness.  They have struggled with lack of food and shortage of water.  All the time, they are re-connecting with the faith of their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and learning what it means to be the people that God has chosen.

 

In today’s story, the Israelites have reached Mount Sinai.  The scholars aren’t entirely sure where Mount Sinai was, or Mount Horeb as it was also known, but the probable location is Mount Catherine, at the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula.

 

It’s at this point that God decides that it’s time to up the game on their spiritual development.  So he has Moses tell them to get ready.  They have to keep clear of the mountain itself.  Then God launched the full drama that nature could summon: thunder, lightning, thick cloud on top of the mountain.  And Moses has people sounding the shofar, the ancient musical horn made from a ram’s horn.  And all the people are waiting, full of anticipation.

 

Then God spoke.

 

There are very few stories of God speaking directly to thousands of people.  It doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it is because God has something significant to say.  So we should listen.

 

God spoke.  And God said, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of slavery.”

 

This is who God is, the God of mercy, the God of liberation, the God who listened to their anguished cries, the God who saved them.  This is who God is, the God who wants to have a relationship with them, who wants them to be His people.

 

But they still don’t know what it means to be the people of God.  They need to learn how to be a people, and how to be the people whom God has chosen.  God isn’t talking about having a relationship with lots of individuals, but with them together, as a whole people.  And so God starts to tell them HOW to be God’s people.  He wants them to be thinking about what they can do to develop trust within the community – do it.  He wants them to be thinking of the things that damage the life of the community – don’t do them.

 

I am the Lord your God, … and you shall have no other gods before me.

 

In Egypt, they were familiar with a religion in which there were lots of gods, each with their own designated responsibilities or areas of interest.

 

For us now, there are lots of things that we place between ourselves and God, the one true God.  People worship the National Lottery, the religion of getting and having, the cult of celebrity, their families, their perfect homes, all kinds of things are given more importance in peoples’ lives than God.  Of course, a lot of people have dismissed God from their lives altogether.

 

God made us.  God loves us.  God wants us to live in relation to God.  Everything else is secondary.

 

God says: I am the Lord your God.

 

God continues: Don’t make idols for yourself.  Nothing made by humans can be anything like as awesome and wonderful as God.  When people make idols, they are worshipping aspects of themselves.

 

Don’t dis-respect God’s name.  Realise who you’re dealing with here.

 

Then God starts to talk about the things that will help people live as a community.  It’s about have a set of expectations that everyone respects, a good way of living that people understand and, for the most part, live by.

 

Live within the rhythms of God’s time.  Make space for God in your life, and that means worship and prayer and being thankful.  And God was saying to the people: do this together, have a day where no one expects you to work, but you rest and enjoy each other’s company.

 

God says: Honour your father and your mother.  That’s how society will flourish.  And yes, as a general instruction to the community, it’s really important.  It’s not an instruction to young children, but to the adult children of elderly people.  Some societies are really good at this, and treat their elders with respect.

 

However, with people living longer and longer with considerable needs, families don’t always have the skills to care for their elders.  And what happens when the parents didn’t bring up the children with love and care.   I did the funeral once of a guy who was so self-centred, he expected his family to run round after him and would threaten to disown them if they didn’t do what he wanted.  At the funeral, you could feel the tension and bitterness and hurt bubbling under the surface.  The way we treat our children affects who they become and how the behave for the rest of their lives.

 

So we need to respect all people.

 

God continues:  You shall not murder.  You shall not commit adultery.  You shall not steal.  And all of these come down to how we live as a community.  You only have to see an episode or two of Jeremy Kyle to see how these things undermine relationships.

 

God says:  Don’t dishonour your neighbour by telling lies about them or making assumptions about the motivations and what they’re up to.  Don’t revel in gossip.  And don’t spread rumours, or pass on stories on facebook or twitter that you don’t know for sure are true.  Because all of this undermines trust.

 

And then God says: Don’t envy someone because of their abilities and achievements, their possessions or the popularity.  Because that envy leads you to hate or to steal or to undermine someone by telling stories about them, or even to murder.  It can have a really evil outcome.  Learn to look at your own motivations, and hand the negative ones over to God in prayer.

 

We call them the Ten Commandments.  In the way the story is told, God gives these instructions to the Israelites to teach them how to be God’s people.  They came to be written on stone tablets, visible, tangible, a witness to the relationship between God and the people.  Jesus summarises them for us: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength; and love your neighbour as yourself. Live that, and you will live well.

Water Water

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When you’re in the desert, finding water can be a problem.  More than anything, you need water.  And the fear of not having access to water can be an even greater problem.

 

In the bible, the need for water has a spiritual dimension.  The psalms use that experience of deep thirst to describe what it is like to long for God:

 

O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;

my soul is athirst for you.

My flesh also faints for you,

as in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.

So would I gaze upon you in your holy place,

that I might behold your power and your glory.

Psalm 63:1-3

 

In the story of Moses leading the children of Israel through the wilderness, water is a recurring theme.  It began with babies being thrown into the River Nile, and the saving of Moses himself.  Then the Israelites came through the water to safety while their enemies drowned.  Then there are the stories of the need for water in the wilderness, and in our Sunday by Sunday cycle, we only get one of these – today’s story of the waters of Massah and Meribah.  In the first story, the Israelites camp at Marah, where there is water, but it tastes bitter, and Moses has to remedy this. Then they spend some time at Elim, where there are twelve springs, so water is plentiful.

 

In today’s story, they get to Rephidim and set up camp.  But there is no water.  And once again, they complain to Moses.  We heard last week how given they were to moaning and mumbling.  When other people moan, it can get to you.  When you are the grumbler, I can only think you don’t realise what an impact it has on people around you.  You are imposing your bad mood, your fear and anxiety on other people, and it makes them feel miserable too.

 

On this occasion, it got to Moses.  On previous occasions, he had remained in control when the people complained to him and he was able to calm them down and talk to God and go back and reassure the people.  But this time, Moses answers back and is quite short with them.  The argument is hotting up, and Moses becomes fearful himself, afraid of what the Israelites might do to him.  He comes before God with his fear: “They are almost ready to stone me”, he says.

 

The Israelites have already forgotten to trust in God, who brought them out of Egypt, who led them safely over the water, who gave them food and water over and over again.  God is with them, all the time, present with them, leading them.  They are so quick to put it out of mind.  And what is worse, is that Moses has lost faith.  God always has an answer.  God can always provide a way forward. But for a moment, Moses has forgotten this.

 

God tells Moses to go back alongside the people, to walk with them, to listen to them, to hear their deeper concerns and their inner fears.

 

Sometimes when people grumble at you about one thing, it is really because they’ve just been through something difficult and that is the real problem, not the focus of their moaning.  It’s not always easy to get to the real issue.

 

Moses himself has to learn to trust in God once again.  It is a constant lesson for all of us, to give our worries to God and let God take the strain.

 

The people were thirsty.  Of course they were.  We all need water every day.  But they were spiritually thirsty too.  They needed God, and they couldn’t recognise the presence of God with them, even when God was that close to them.  With spiritual thirst, the first thing is to recognise it, and to tell God about it – like in the Psalm:

 

As the deer longs for the water brooks,

so longs my soul for you, O God.

My soul is athirst for God, even for the living God.

Psalm 42:1-2

 

Then God will help you quench your thirst.  God will give you opportunities where you experience God and help you deepen your experience of knowing him and loving him.

 

In our story in the desert, God tells Moses to take his walking stick and strike the rock.  Which he does, and water flows out of the rock, so that everyone can drink.  The problem is sorted, water is provided.  God can make things happen in the most unlikely of places; God provides solutions that are utterly unimaginable to us.

 

The story was told over and over again among the Iraelites and people reflected on it and saw new things in it, and saw their own lives reflected in it.

 

In the book of Wisdom, for example, there is a reflection on this story.   The water flowing from the flinty rock is like wisdom that nourishes those who seek knowledge of God, and shows how God provides water for our souls.  The poem says this:

 

When they were thirsty, they called upon you,

and water was given them out of flinty rock,

and from hard stone a remedy for their thirst.

Wisdom 11:4

 

The incident was seen as a test, God testing Moses and the Israelites, as a way of showing them their lack of faith and their need to be dependent on God.  And God tests us, to remind us that of our own need for faith and trust in God.  When we learn from our experiences, we grow in wisdom.

 

Moses was regarded as having cracked up under the test.  Later in the story, God reminds Moses of this incident, and God tells him that he won’t be allowed into the Promised Land because of what happened at Meribah.  Moses is allowed to see the Promised Land, but not to cross over into it.

 

For us today, the story challenges us to think about our own thirst for God, our own longing.  And to recognise that and offer it in prayer.  Because God will meet that thirst.  Even when our souls are flinty rocks, God can bring forth fresh water.

 

And when we are celebrating harvest, the story is a reminder of the necessity of clean water for all people in all parts of the world.  As a church, we have long supported Water Aid, which helps to give people access to clean water.  So we are putting out a special collecting bowl today and next week for Water Aid and I would invite you to remember those who suffer because of the lack of water.

Manna

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The Israelites were not finding things easy.  Yes, they had been liberated from slavery and oppression, but that didn’t mean that their troubles were over.  They had been living in Egypt for centuries, it had become home to them, even though they were treated badly.  They knew where they were in Egypt.  In coming away, everything changed.  They left their homes, their way of life, their world view, to step out into the desert.  And it was a desert, a wilderness.  There was nothing comfortable or homely.  It wasn’t safe or secure.

 

Change is never easy.  You change one thing, and then you find it has a knock on effect and everything else is turned upside down.  And just adjusting to the change is hard.  When things change outside, you find you need to change inside as well, and that’s the hardest thing – you have to change your perception of who you are and how you relate to the world and what everything means.

 

So they started murmuring about Moses and Aaron, grumbling behind their backs.  It happens all the time of course.  At work, people grumble about the boss.  At home, they grumble about the woman down the street.  Here in church, people grumble about me – I know they do.  I wish they would just tell me, and we could sort it out.  But no, they moan and murmur, and eventually someone tells me about the grumbling.

 

Let’s face it, the desert was not an easy place to be.  The landscape is harsh.  The sand gets everywhere.  You can’t so much as get a wash.

 

Eventually, word got back to Moses and Aaron that the people were complaining.  When people are unhappy about everything, they will pick on one issue as the focus for all their complaints.  For the Israelites in the wilderness, it was food and drink that became the problem.  They were saying: Egypt may have been difficult for us, but at least we had something to eat.  Perhaps God should have killed us there rather than bring us into the desert to die of hunger.

 

Which shows just how lost they were spiritually.  When the sons of Israel moved to Egypt, they had brought with them their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but over the centuries, that faith had dissipated.  When Moses came to bring them out of Egypt, he had recalled them to that early faith, but they were still struggling with what it meant to be the people of God.  They hadn’t learnt to trust God to care for them and provide for them.

 

Whereas Moses goes back to talk to God about the situation and God explains how it’s going to work, how food will be provided, and he promises bread from heaven, which will appear every day, so that they can gather enough to eat every day.  Every morning, when the sun dried up the dew, there was a flaky substance lying on the ground.  They had never come across anything like this before.  They called it manna.  it may well have been a secretion of the cochineal insect on the tamarisk bushes which drips to the earth by day and becomes hard at night.  It tasted like crystallised honey.  This was to be their major source of food for all the time they spent in the wilderness.

 

But God built in a test.  The Israelites were to gather enough each morning to feed themselves and their families for the day.  If they tried to keep any left over until morning, it went off and became wormy.  Except on Fridays, when they could collect double the amount, so that they had enough to eat on the Sabbath without going out to gather it.  And the Israelites had to learn to live in God’s way, trusting God that if there was enough food for today there would be enough food for tomorrow.  You get the same idea in the Lord’s Prayer – give us today the food we need for today.

 

And another part of the lesson God was trying to teach them was about keeping the Sabbath day holy by refraining from work and dedicating the day to resting in God.  The idea is that our lives should reflect the pattern that God established in creation, with the seventh day being set aside for renewal and refreshment.  That way of being had been lost in Egypt, just as we have totally lost it in our culture.

 

The Israelites didn’t get it straight away.  Some tried to bring in spare manna to keep for breakfast the next day, but when they came to it in the morning, it was horrible.  And if they tried to gather manna on the Sabbath, there was none to be had.  It was a steep learning curve to living God’s way.

 

Living God’s way means trusting in God to provide.  When you live trustfully, things happen.  Whatever you need will come to you.  It’s about not hoarding things for a rainy day.  Be satisfied with what you have.  Share what you have with those who need it.  Live generously and you will never go short.  It’s no good grabbing food and goods – for one thing, you get a bit of a reputation, because people notice – but getting things for yourself and your own family gets in the way of being generous with others.

 

There’s a picture here of the story, painted by the German priest Sieger Koder who died in 2015.

You can find it here: https://www.paulineuk.org/browse/item/manna-petite-picture-card-pack-of-25/5031446901618

It helps to bring the meaning of the story home:

  • You can see the amazement on the face of the guy in yellow, wondering what this is and where it came from, and the guy in green is looking at it in his hand;
  • You can see a couple of people tentatively tasting the strange food.
  • It brings home the reality of the food coming to the people – there’s a couple of people just peering out of their tents, and the food is there.
  • The guy in yellow – you can see his bare feet. Now they may have had no shoes, but it also recalls the instruction to Moses at the burning bush to take his shoes off.  This is holy ground, touched by the grace of God.
  • All of them are kneeling or sitting on the ground. They are in the presence of God who gives them everything.
  • The skies are dark but dawn is coming up on the horizon. Life is a struggle now, but there is hope of a new day coming, a new land, a new life.

 

Take this card and use it as a prayer.  Just spend time looking at and noticing the details.  Read the story again from the bible.  Let the picture take you into prayer.  Talk to God about whatever the picture evokes in you.

God is

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When you want to catch someone’s attention, but they are just not noticing!  That.  You might wave at them, or call their name, but they just don’t see and they just don’t hear.  And it doesn’t help that the person you want to encounter doesn’t even know you.  But you know them.  Why should they pay any attention?

 

Moses was out with his father-in-law’s sheep.  He was out of his normal territory.  In more than one way!  He had been brought up as an Egyptian prince, though born a Hebrew.  He had killed an Egyptian who was maltreating a Hebrew slave, and had fled the country, a fugitive.  He had the good fortune to fall in with Jethro, the priest of Midian, by protecting his daughters, and had thereby found himself a new home.  He was settled enough in this adopted way of life – he had a job, a wife, a family.  Did he miss the politics and parties, the glamour and the gossip of the royal house?  They were a distant memory.  He was glad to be alive and safe.  And this day, he and the sheep had gone further away, looking for pasture.  Working with sheep gave him a lot of time on his own.  You had to be alert at all times, certainly, but the silence honed and shaped you day by day.  It was an intensely practical and demanding job dealing with pasture, water, danger, disease – you had to have your feet on the ground.

 

So how do you jerk Moses out of his thoughts and memories and make him notice?

 

It was the flame he saw first at the edge of his consciousness.  Fires were common enough, though why should there be a fire here, in a bush on the lower slopes of the mountain?  He went to look.  And he saw that the bush itself was not burning up.  The flame blazed higher as he came near.  And a voice said: Don’t come any closer! Take your shoes off, this is holy ground.

 

And its holy ground not because the place is special or the bush is special.  Holy ground is every square centimetre of this planet and beyond as made by God.  Holy ground is your every day at the moment when you notice how special it is.

 

Sometimes, it takes something extraordinary to grab someone’s attention, when you want them to see a blazing flame and to hear your voice and to feel the hot sand under your bare feet and to attend with that inner spiritual sense – that’s the difficult bit, engaging the inner spirit.

 

The voice tells Moses that he is the God of all his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, right down to his own father.  And the voice of God tells Moses that he has a job to do in bringing the people of the Hebrews out of Egypt where they are being oppressed, and leading them to a new home, a good land, where they can thrive and flourish.  Moses does not accept the calling with joy.  He starts a whole series of excuses, most of which take place after our reading ends.

 

The first barrier is about who this is who is talking to him out of the fire.  Moses wants tangible proof but God offers him a sign.  A sign is different from proof.  A sign is a visible presentation of a divine truth.  The fire is a sign, a sign that God is present, and it says something about what God is like.  God is like a fire that purifies and cleanses and is active and changes things.  A sign is a bit like a sacrament, a physical thing that is done but points to an inner spiritual meaning.

 

Moses asks God-whom-he-encounters-in-flame what his name is.  And the answer is strange.  Our translation says “I am who I am” or it could just as well be “I will be who I will be”.  Some read the Hebrew letters as Yahweh, others as Jehovah.  It is a brush off.  God is not giving a name to Moses, but a pointer.

 

Moses wants a name, a label for the God he encounters, but as soon as you put a name to God, you make God smaller, more manageable.  But the God who is with us cannot be controlled by our will or maniputated by our prayers.  God was.  God is.  God will be.  That’s it.  It took a vision of a burning bush for Moses to encounter the inner truth that God was with him; God was always with him, and God would always be with him.

 

Behind Moses’ question is another: What is God like?  How do we talk about God?  ‘God’ is not a name, it is a role, a place.  And it raises that question for us: Who is God?  And there’s no easy answer.  There is no pat answer, no definition, just a relationship, a relationship that is there whether you like it or not.  It’s when you acknowledge it and choose to be part of it that you feel its presence.

 

And what Moses is discovering – and enables us to see – is that God is with us.  That’s who God is.  God is always with us.  Moses’ mission will happen because God is with him.  This is how we encounter God, because God is with us.  Even when we don’t notice God, God is always there.  Let God be God.  Let God be with you.  God is always with you – just open the door.

 

Stop what you’re doing.

Step aside from the daily path.

Take off your shoes, for you are treading on holy ground.

Open your eyes to see the glory.

And open your ears to hear the whisper of God’s voice.

It is a movement that happens every day.

Your God is calling you.