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.

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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.

Problems with Immigrants

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The Old Testament reading of Track 1 of the Lectionary gives us the story of Moses, starting this Sunday, so I plan to preach on that for the next few weeks.  We begin with the birth of Moses:

 

The new king of Egypt looked around him at his great kingdom and it was good.  Except.  Except that there were a lot of immigrants, foreigners.  And his advisors were telling him that people on the ground were grumbling about how the foreigners were getting the jobs, and they got the cream of the benefits, and went straight to the top of the housing lists, and it just wasn’t fair.  In fact, in one city, there had been a “Unite the Bright” protest, people marching with banners saying “Keep Egypt Egyptian!” and “Egyptian lives matter!”

 

Other advisors pointed out that there was a security issue here. What if the Hebrews started getting political and tried to take over and change our religion and our way of life, and then where would we be.  And maybe they would start attacking us, terrorism on our streets.  It all felt very threatening.

 

One old retainer pointed out to Pharoah that there was a historical reason for all those Hebrews being there, that a Hebrew had been responsible for saving Egypt in the great famine and had brought his family to live here, but Pharoah didn’t want to listen and retired him on the spot.

 

So Pharoah enacted new laws, so that the foreigners were confined to certain areas of work and were heavily supervised and given limited pay and conditions.  The regime was pretty oppressive, it has to be said, but it only went some way to calming the anxieties of the Egyptian people.  More was needed.  The trouble was, there were too many Hebrews.  The population had to be controlled.  So Pharoah insisted that the Hebrew midwives kill the baby boys at birth.  This was not a great success.  The midwives did everything they could to subvert their instructions and keep the babies alive, even when they put themselves at risk.  There was God’s way and there was Pharoah’s way, and they knew which way was right.  It was clearly an act of civil disobedience, but sometimes what is right is bigger than what is legal and what is popular.

 

So Pharoah went further and made a new law so that every baby boy born to the Hebrews could be thrown into the Nile.  It was open season on baby boys.  And that was OK, because as everyone in Egypt knew, the Hebrews were not quite human.  So it was just like killing rats really, wasn’t it?

 

You think?

 

So this Hebrew couple have a baby, and it’s a boy!  He was such a beautiful baby, absolutely gorgeous.  But a boy was condemned – his fate was to be thrown into the great river Nile.  The parents looked at him and they loved him and they couldn’t throw him to his death, not yet.  So they kept him out of sight.  That was OK for a time, though it was stressful keeping the child quiet whenever the Egyptian overseers came near.  But it couldn’t last forever.

 

The mum was clever.  She wove a basket for the baby, a Moses basket, light and strong.  She made it watertight, a boat for a baby.  And she took it down to the river and threw her baby into the water, fulfilling the law.  Except actually, she carefully placed him onto the water, among the reeds from where he couldn’t float too far too fast.  She said a prayer asking God to protect her little one.  It felt like she was committing her beloved son to the waters of chaos, the waters of creation.  Leaving him there was the hardest thing she ever did.  But her daughter hung around, watching out for her little brother.

 

It wasn’t long before a group of young women came down to the river for a splash and a swim.  They hoped they could have a nice time without have to see any of those horrible dead bloated baby corpses that were a regular part of river life these days.  Fortunately there were no dead babies that day, only a basket with a screaming baby, fully alive.  And he was so cute, you just wanted to take him home.  The king’s daughter decided to adopt him, this baby that her father had condemned to death.  She rescued him and wanted to keep him.  A little local girl offered to find a wet nurse to feed the baby, and the Princess made the arrangements and agreed to pay the woman.  Did she realise that she was dealing with the baby’s sister and mother?  She wasn’t daft.  Like the midwives, she finds a way of subverting her father’s cruelty.  She brings salvation to one little baby, but that is enough, eventually, to bring salvation to a whole nation.  Because the baby she saves, Moses, will be responsible for bringing the people of the Hebrews out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the land of promise, the land of milk and honey.  Little acts of kindness can bring huge results.

 

It is an ancient story, the story of Moses, and it will build up for us over the next few weeks.  Wouldn’t you think that an ancient story would have nothing to tell us about life today?  And yet so much in this story sounds like it could happen today.  What echoes did you hear? There are many examples of hatred and oppression in our world – too many.  And – thanks be to God – there are those who stand up against racism and evil.  It’s a story that gives hope and encouragement, because the little act of saving one baby could result in saving the world.

 

Even old stories can act as a mirror for our own souls: who would you identify with in the story?  Are there times when you have been cruel like Pharoah, hating people who are different?  Are there times when you take a stand against what you know is wrong? Are there times when you go out of your way to be kind and generous?  It’s not just an old story, it’s our story as well.

Loving the Unlikely

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Did you watch “Who do you think you are?” on the television on Thursday night?  The singer Lulu was looking into the story of her grandparents: her grandfather was an Irish Catholic in Glasgow and her grandmother was the daughter of the Leader of the Protestant Orange Lodge Women’s Group.  And this was a time when Protestants and Catholics in Glasgow didn’t have anything to do with each other.  Both families tried to keep the two young lovers apart, and failed utterly, a sort of early-twentieth-century Romeo and Juliet.  But it was a reminder of just how much hate there can be between different groups of people.

 

We have seen a lot of that recently in the news.  Last weekend, white nationalist marched in Charlottesville Virginia shouting slogans against Jews.  They included nazi groups and members of the Ku Klux Klan, organisations that pursue the politics of hatred, asserting the supremacy of whites over blacks.  Church leaders walked against them as a witness to Christ’s message of love and inclusion.  And what made it worse was that Donald Trump was clearly supporting the white nationalist and their evil ways.

 

Then on Thrusday night the attacks on Barcelona and Cambrils took place – the latest in a long line of attacks fuelled by hatred.

 

In today’s Gospel story, Jesus took a break and he and the gang went up north into Lebanon.  Maybe he had annoyed too many people and needed to get away for a bit.  Maybe he thought he could have a bit of peace and quiet in a place where people didn’t know him.  Maybe he wanted to spend some time teaching the disciples.  We don’t know for sure.  But despite his best intentions he was quickly recognised.

 

A local woman from the area came and stood within sight of them all and shouted, “Have mercy on me,” – it was the call of a beggar, someone in need.  She knew who he was allright, because she called him “Lord, son of David”.  And she wouldn’t stop shouting.  She wanted something from Jesus, and she wanted it badly.  “My daughter is tormented by a demon.”  She was a carer at the end of her tether.  She wanted her daughter to be well and she didn’t know where else to turn.  And just when she couldn’t cope any more, the healer comes to town.  Rumours about him had even crossed the border.  And her family needed healing.  The trouble was, of course, was that he was a Jew, a man, a healer, a teacher.  And she was a poor woman from another race, another religion.  The Jews regarded her kind as pagans.  She wouldn’t normally expect kindness from a Jew.  But this man was different.

 

He ignored her at first, but she went on shouting, “Have mercy on me!”  Maybe if she made a fuss long enough, someone would listen to her.

 

The disciples closed in on him, muttering away.  She could see that they were aggrieved.  She came closer, standing just beyond the group of men.  She could see him better now.  He looked tired.  He turned to her and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

 

She fell on her knees.  “Please help me!”  Her voice was plaintive, quiet now, pleading.  His friends just stood there watching, horrified, disapproving.  For them, she was just a piece of dirt.  But he, He was different.

 

He said, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  It felt like a test, a challenge.

 

As far as his kind were concerned, her people were dogs.  It was an insult – the kind of insult that came easily between his folk and her folk. There was no love lost between them.

 

She took a deep breath.  His friends were glaring at her, willing her to slink away.  But no, she wasn’t going to do that.  She had nothing to lose and everything to gain.  She took his insult and turned it around.

 

“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even dogs get to eat the crumbs from the master’s table!”

He appeared to relax a bit and even smiled.  He looked round at his friends, looking for their reaction.  Things weren’t going as they expected.  Jesus wasn’t sending her away and she seemed to have bested him in a moral argument.

 

He looked back at her.  “Woman,” he said. “You sure have some faith.  Your daughter will be healed.”  And she was, and it was amazing, and wonderful.  The months and years of distress fell away, and their lives took a new turn.

 

She didn’t see what happened next when Jesus and the disciples got down to discussing what just took place there.  She didn’t see him explaining how there was no ‘us’ and ‘them’, how God loved everyone, even foreigners, even women, even people from a different race and another religion.  And if he, Jesus, could have fellowship with them and minister to them, so could the disciples, even if they never had before.  It was a hard lesson, challenging some of their deepest perceptions.

 

And Jesus challenges us.  When we treat people badly because we don’t believe they deserve respect, Jesus is there, looking straight at us, challenging us to think again.  Jesus was there with the church leaders in Charlottesville weeping at the hatred in the hearts of the white supremacists.  Jesus was there on the streets of Barcelona and London and Manchester and Nice and Paris, when attacks came out of nowhere.  Jesus is there when one group of Christians hate another group of Christians and claim they are doing it for the Lord.  When evil happens, Jesus is there, challenging the perpetrators to look at their own shadows.

 

Jesus gives us an example: don’t hate “them” ever, whoever “they” are.  “They” are God’s children.  God loves them.  Jesus loves them, even the most unlikely people.  You must love them too.

Layers of Life

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We stayed in Orkney for 13 days in July/August 2017, with a day to travel there and a day to return, staying in a cottage in Kirkwall, the main town.

 

We saw the sights:

  • Mesolithic implements in museums representing the lives of the early nomads some 7,000 years ago;
  • Neolithic tombs (chambered cairns), villages and farmsteads, as well as standing stones set up around 5,000 and 4,500 years ago;
  • Iron age brochs;
  • a Viking farm occupied until the 19th century, and a house built on a Viking graveyard;
  • ruins of Norse churches and villages (12th century);
  • the Romanesque Cathedral built in the 12th century by the masons who built our own Durham Cathedral;
  • ruins of palaces built in the 12th, 16th and 17th centuries;
  • a gentleman’s house begun in 1620 and extended and developed over the centuries;
  • memorials to the importance of the port of Stromness for the Hudson Bay Company and the explorers and travellers who came from Stromness;
  • evidence of the important role played by Orkney in two 20th century World Wars – Kitchener was drowned off the coast of Orkney. In the Second World War, the Royal Oak was sunk by a German submarine, which led Churchill to insist on barriers to be built between the southern islands by Italian Prisoners of War, who also built a chapel from two Nissan huts, which is still maintained and cherished;
  • memorials recording great literary creativity, to George Mackay Brown, Erick Linklater, Edwin Muir, Robert Rendall;
  • the Piers Arts Centre of world renown, with art by some of the 20th Century greats, including local Orkney artists.

 

I came away with a sense of the layers of human history, of generations that occupied or made use of or developed further the land, the structures and the culture of previous generations.  Maes Howe, a Neolithic burial tomb, was used as a shelter from harsh weather by Vikings who left graffiti on the walls.  There was also the conscious abandonment of culture, when Neolithic cairns were filled in with earth when they went out of use.  Even then, the evidence suggests that the sites were still respected by the peoples who came after.  This sense of continuity may be an obvious thing to note, but I have never before felt that sense of continuity going back for so many thousands of years.

 

I was also impressed at how able and intelligent and creative were the people of the stone age with such meagre resources – so unlike the caricature.  The people who dragged huge stones to Brodgar from different corners of the Orkney Islands were able to create a place of awe and wonder, a place that links earth and sea and sky.  They designed Maes Howe to catch the light of the midwinter solstice, a moment when light bursts into the darkness.

 

The archaeologist who showed us round the excavation at the Ness of Brodgar and the Ranger who introduced us to the Ring of Brodgar were clear: in the end, nobody really understands what is going here.  Why did the people of the stone age bury the remains of their ancestors in chambered cairns? How did these burials take place? Were they of corpses or excarnated skeletons? And then why were some of them cremated remains? Why were rings of great stones erected? Why were tombs always on the outside of the circles and not within? What held the communities together?  There are so many questions.  In the absence of answers, there is a tendency for people to project their own norms onto the patterns of stones and artefacts carefully brushed from the ground.  (I may have been doing this myself in the last paragraph!) When we visited Skara Brae, we listened in to some of the guides leading groups around the site.  A visitor asked one man if the residents of Skara Brae were peaceful or warlike.  He said that in the 1960s hippy culture archaeology, the archaeologists had projected their own love and peace ethics onto the community and declared them a peace-loving people, but actually there was evidence that it was not quite like that.  A few moments later, we heard another guide telling her group that Skara Brae hosted a non-violent community.

 

It is inevitable that we look at such amazing structures and wonder about the people who made them, lived in them and used them.  We bring our own world-view, our own hopes and expectations.  We are trying to make sense of what we see in the landscape, and what we feel in our own interior landscapes.  We look at the world around us and try to make some sort of sense for our own lives.  And that’s fine.  We listen to the scholars and experts and weigh up what they tell us.  And that feeds into our own assessment of the big questions that humankind has pondered from the beginning.

 

For me, it was a privilege to see these marvels.  I was in the presence of the holy in a way I could not articulate.  I was looking at the way ancient peoples had tried to make sense of the world and found it wonderful.  But then, I’m projecting, aren’t I?

 

Sowing Seed

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Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

 

God’s kingdom is like seed scattered wildly and generously in good soil and in unexpected places.  And God longs for it to flourish.  God expects the seed to grow wherever it is planted.  God wants it to yield a plentiful harvest.

 

And sometimes we are the seed that God is sowing in our communities.  God sends us to make a difference by the things that we do and by the way that we love others.  We are the seed.

 

Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

 

But it is all dependent on the quality of the ground.  If the soil is poor or if the ground is stony or if it’s choked with weeds and thistles, it has less chance of doing well.  The type of soil matters.

 

And we are the ground on which the seed is sown.  I hope we are the kind of people in which the seed can grow, but all of us will have stony patches and thistle corners and barren areas.  Welcome God’s word.  Let it grow in you.  Let the roots grow deep.  Let it become fruitful in you.

 

Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

 

And God is like the farmer scattering the seed, casting it widely into all kinds of terrain.

 

And God also wants us to be the farmers of his word, taking it out into the places where we live and work and spend our time so that we can do God’s planting.  He want us as a church to be growing the kingdom of God.  And that’s not about what the Vicar does, but all of us, each one, called to plant and grow God’s kingdom.

 

Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

 

As a church, we are involved in a project called Inspired Futures.  This is helping us think about our future, and how we can serve the community better and become financially sustainable and encourage people to enjoy the beauty and heritage of this building.  People are always amazed when they come into this church for the first time.  It is a real show case for the arts and skills of the north east in the early part of the twentieth century.  We need to think about how we can promote our heritage to bring people to visit church.  And we need to create opportunities where they don’t just see the carvings and the windows, but they catch something of the glory of God as well.

 

When I have a class of children in church, I tell them that every carving and every window tell a story.  This church is full of stories!  And it is full of theology.  It makes statements about what we believe about God and what God is doing among us and who we are as a church, the body of Christ.

 

How can we use our church building to help sow the seed of God’s word and be part of God’s kingdom?

 

And how about us – you and me – how can we sow seed?  Firstly, by the way we live as we become more and more like Christ.  It’s about the quality of loving, not just for our families – everyone loves their families, but going beyond them to show love for people in the wider community, especially those who are not so easily loveable.  Caring means listening to people, paying them attention, looking out for them.  Every act of genuine caring is another seed sown.

 

But sowing seed is about being sufficiently confident in your faith that you are happy to be identified as a Christian and a churchgoer.  It’s not about preaching to people and telling them how to behave, but telling them how much God loves you, and how important it is to you to be part of God’s family.  Tell them when things are happening at church that they might enjoy or benefit from.  If they have been bereaved, encourage them to come to the Service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving in November.  Come along with them.

 

Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

 

God wants you to be the kind of soil where the seeds of his word can grow.  That doesn’t necessarily mean going on courses or reading books, though that can be helpful to some people.  It could mean growing in prayer – spending a little longer each day or each week in prayer, or learning a new way of praying that stretches you spiritually.  It could mean looking up the bible readings during the week and reading them slowly and thinking about what God might be saying to you personally through the reading.  Sometimes, I have been to see a film or watched a programme on the television which makes me think about God in a new way.  I didn’t follow the series “Broken” myself, but so many people have told me how good it was, and how it made them think again about faith and about following Jesus.  There are so many ways to go on learning.  Be open to the lessons that God brings to you.

 

Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

 

God is planting his kingdom all around us and within us and he wants us to be part of it.  Sometimes, we are the seed that God is planting!  How is God using you to sow the seeds of his kingdom?  Sometimes we are the ground into which God is sowing the seed.  How is God encouraging you to grow in faith and hope and love?  And sometimes God calls on us to be sowing the seed, building the kingdom of God in our communities, making a difference in people’s lives.  Think about the times in your life when you have been called to do that!

 

Let anyone with ears to hear listen!