Hard Tales

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Families can be complicated.  There was this older couple.  They didn’t have any children, which was a great concern to them, as they were quite well-off and they wanted someone to inherit and continue the line and the business.  So the woman had an idea.  She had a slave, an Egyptian woman, a younger woman.  So she suggested that her husband took the slave as a concubine, so that the slave woman could have a child for the couple, a surrogate baby.  And that’s what happened.  The slave woman had a baby boy.  However, the family dynamics rapidly went down hill.  There they were, all living under one roof, the barren wife, the slave girl mistress with her child, and the old man.  Maybe the older woman felt a bit threatened.  She had tried to control the situation and wanted to manage the slave woman and her child

 

Then amazingly, the older woman got pregnant, and she had a baby boy.  So there was the old man, his wife, his mistress and the two children.  It was getting ever more complicated.  Then came the time when a party had been arranged for the younger boy, the legitimate heir.  His mum saw the two children playing, the older one making fun of the toddler.  She is probably also anxious that the older child will compromise her son’s inheritance.   She was angry, so she demanded that the husband throw out the slave girl and he child.  He was very reluctant because he was fond enough of the slave woman and loved his oldest son.  But his wife insisted.  The foreign woman had to go.

 

That night, the old man had a dream in which God told him to let the woman and the boy go.  God promised to take care of them.  That was fine for him!  It gave him comfort.  He could follow his wife’s demands and still feel that he was doing the right thing by God.  Nevertheless, it was a terrible thing that he did.

 

In the morning, he gave the slave girl some bread and water and sent them off into the desert.  There was no thought about how they were going to survive.  The bread and water were not enough for any length of journey.  And as for the older woman, she has to bear a good part of the blame for the way she treated them.

 

It wasn’t long before the water ran out.  They were in the wilderness. There was no source of water to be seen.  The boy, Ishmael, was desperate.  The slave woman, Hagar, lost heart.  She was convinced that this was it.  She wept and prayed.  And the boy wept and prayed. God heard him. The name Ishmael means “God will hear”.  An angel came and showed Hagar a well, so she was able to refill the water bottle and they were able to drink and survive.   They found a way of living in the wilderness, and they made a life, independent of Abraham and Sarah who had thrown them out.

 

It is, for me, one of the more difficult stories in the bible because it shows Abraham and Sarah behaving so badly.   It sounds like the plot of a soap opera.  And you only have to look around the area to see broken families, people who treat others cruelty and unfairly.  Sometimes, the bible shows us how not to behave.  When I read this story, it makes me squirm inside, it makes me feel very uncomfortable.  When we read the stories in the bible, they often reflect on us, the readers.  In this story, we can see our own shadows.  It reminds us of the times when we have been cruel and heartless, when we have put our own interests first and failed to care for others, when we have made pious excuses for not doing the right thing.

 

It also shows God going along with Sarah’s cruelty, though he is able to turn it round and God’s care and protection help Hagar and Ishmael survive.

 

The story is important for another reason, because the story of Ishmael is also important to Islam, though his story is told very differently in the Quran.  In the Quran, both Ishmael and Isaac are regarded as prophets, but Ishmael as the older son has priority, even though his mother was a slave woman.  Ishmael was regarded as an ancestor of Mohammed, so he is particularly important for Moslems who claims a continuous link to Abraham through Ishmael and Mohammed.  For Jews and Christians, the link to Abraham is through Isaac.  Moslems believe that Jews and Christians have twisted the original story to make Isaac more important.  It is a major cause of disagreement between the three Abrahamic faiths.

 

The one positive thing I can take from this story is that God can use a dysfunctional family to bring about God’s will and purpose.  Abraham is the first of the patriarchs.  His son Isaac went on to have twin sons including Jacob who was later renamed Israel, became the father of twelve sons who headed up the twelve tribes of Israel.  The bible shows Isaac to be the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, and part of the covenant between God and the people who would become Israel.

 

But God makes promises to Hagar and Ishmael too.  When her baby is expected, God tells Hagar that Ishmael will be “a wild ass of a man … [who] shall live at odds with all his kin”, which has turned out to be a pretty accurate description of the relationship between Arabs and Jews.  There is a place for Ishmael in God’s plan.  And that’s something we need to remember when there are tensions between Moslems and Christians.  Hate crimes against Moslems have increased, as have animosity towards refugees and asylum seekers, and that is just wrong.  One thing we can learn from the difficult stories is that violence is never the solution to disagreements and difficulties.

 

What do I want us to take away today from this story?

  • A willingness to look at our own behaviour, all the times when we have been cruel and have caused pain and distress to others and bring those before God;
  • A bit better understanding about the Islamic faith, and the reason for an aspect of disagreement between the faiths;
  • The opportunity to pray that God will use our own difficult experiences and turn them to God’s glory.

Compassion

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They had all kinds of diseases, all kinds of symptoms.  Pain here or there, lesions, bleeding, feeling constantly weary, lacking in energy, anxiety – between them, you could find everything.  And they may have given names to their problems, but they didn’t always know what was wrong.  That was worse – the not knowing, when you didn’t know what the problem was or how serious it was or whether you could do anything about it.  Doctors were few and far between and were expensive.  And in the end, it was pretty hit and miss as to whether you got cured.  Granny’s old cures were a help, but there were some things that were even beyond Granny.

 

So when they heard there was a healer in town, they came out in droves.  A healer meant hope.

 

Jesus looked at them.  They were full of expectancy, willing Jesus to turn to them, to lay hands on them and pray.  And sort it out.  Make them better.  Jesus was full of compassion.  His heart went out to them.  But the task was huge.  There were so many needy people.

 

Jesus came to Bensham.  He looked around and there were so many needy people.  Yes, there were GP surgeries, even if it took a while to get an appointment.  The QE did a grand job, and there was A&E for emergencies and the walk-in centre if you took bad.  The NHS did a great job, but people were still suffering.

 

Some people had to live with chronic conditions, remembering to take their tablets and dealing with the symptoms and the pain.  Some people were struggling with the frailties that came with old age or the impact of a lifetime of bad diets, drink or drugs.  Others were struggling with mental frailties, depression, break downs, difficult diagnoses.  Then there were those who were reeling from the blows of life: redundancy, bereavement, breakup of relationships.

 

Jesus looked at them.  He was full of compassion.  His heart went out to them.  And he wants us to care.  We are the body of Christ here in this place, so we are called to care.

 

It’s not always easy.  On Monday evening a young woman knocked on the door.  She had split up with her partner and her benefits were being sorted out.  She was going to get money the next day on Tuesday, but the electric had gone and there were no lights and she didn’t have any money to put on the meter stick.  I explained that I didn’t give money.  She said could I help in some way, but it wasn’t clear what kind of help she wanted apart from money on the electricity stick.  I said that I could give food vouchers, but she couldn’t pick up food till Tuesday afternoon, and she would have her money by then anyway.  She went away with nothing.  It was Monday evening, still my rest day, and I was grumpy at being disturbed.

 

On Tuesday morning, someone knocked on the door, one of my regulars who has asked for all sorts of help in the past.  She had been in hospital and now needed to get to an appointment at the Job Centre, but could I give her a lift into Gateshead because she couldn’t walk that far, especially up the hill.  I was about to set off for the service at school, so I was under pressure with a deadline to keep.  I gave her a lift to Prince Consort Road, but I was pretty grumpy about it.

 

On Wednesday, in response to the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower, compassion flowed.  People brought bedding, clothes, water, food, face masks, money to give to those who had lost everything.  It was heartening to see how people responded.

 

When there is a crisis, people do respond well.  What is more difficult is the long term need for compassion, the day by day demands.  How do you make compassion sustainable for the long haul?

 

As a church, we support Gateshead Foodbank and Bensham Community Food Coop, and people have been generous in donating food items, toiletries etc.  The demand in both these services is going up, but they do a fabulous job.  But getting enough food to meet the need is a struggle.

 

And when you are giving and you know it is going to a genuine need, it feels good, it makes you feel like you are really helping, and that is a reward in itself.  It’s more of a problem when you feel people are taking advantage. When people come to the door asking for Foodbank vouchers, I now ask them for evidence of their need, for the letter that says their benefits have been sanctioned, and something that proves how many children they have.  I know people come to me for food so they can spend the money they have on drink or drugs.  That doesn’t make me feel good: because I can’t just trust people, because they are pulling the wool over my eyes, because their needs are self-inflicted.  You might ask where is my compassion for the people who are dependent on drink and drugs.  What would Jesus do?

 

Jesus’ response is to give authority to the 12 disciples to heal.  Even Judas.  So there are more of them to address the need they see before them.  But when Jesus heals, it’s never just about making someone better, it’s about extending God’s kingdom.  The harvest is not just about the healing of the sick but about helping people to experience the love of God and open their hearts to follow Christ.  I know people have grumbled to me that of all the people we have helped, we never see them in church.  Should that matter?  Shouldn’t we stick faithfully to our calling to compassion, whatever the outcome?

 

There are lots of dilemmas and difficulties with being compassionate. We need to ask those questions and have those discussions.   That doesn’t mean we should stop being compassionate.  We are called to be like Jesus, to look with compassion on the people in our community.  It’s not easy.  It’s not always comfortable.  It doesn’t always bring satisfaction. But that’s what we need to do. And we need more people to help.

We believe

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Today is Trinity Sunday, when we proclaim and celebrate what we believe about God.  We do it every week when we say the Creed together, our faith and our worship is steeped in that belief, it binds everything that we do and say in church, but today it’s in-your-face.  We are called to pay attention, to renew our faith, to hear and to respond.

 

So let’s look at the Creed and try to make sense of it.

 

We believe in one God,

 

We believe in one God.  God is One – that is who God is.  But our God is three persons, three centres.  The three persons do different jobs.  Each one is distinct.  But they are still one.  It is very difficult to get your head around, but this is how the scholars and people of great prayer found to be the best way to describe what we experience of God and how we can know God.  It is not rational or logical.  It only makes sense when you pray and relate to God directly.

 

Children sometimes ask me: Who made God? What happened before God? When did God start?  And the answer is that God was always there, before anything else, before God brought everything else into being.  There wasn’t anything before God.  God was.  God is. God ever shall be.

 

The Creed continues:
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

 

God the Father is source of all creation.  God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are with God the Father in creation, but the Father takes the lead in this work.  The creation is not just about how the world was made millions of years ago, including the big bang and evolution and all the ways humankind has tried to understand the beginning of the universe and life on earth.  Creation didn’t happen once upon a time.  It continues.  It happens every day, all the time.

 

A lot of people experience the presence of God through creation, a beautiful sunset, an amazing landscape, the still sense on top of a mountain.  Or when you hold a newborn baby or sit beside someone who is making a good death and going to their Lord.  This is what it means to experience God as Father.

 

For other people, the idea of God as Father can be very difficult if they have had a bad experience of their own human fathers.  God as Father is like the very best, loving, caring dad you can ever imagine, not in a wishy-washy way, but a Father who wants the best for us, his children, including the way we live and the things we get involved in.

 

The Creed goes on:

 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,
was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

 

The longest part of the Creed tells us about God the Son.  It looks at the key events of Jesus’ life from the perspective of what God is like.

 

Jesus was a man, born as a baby to a human mother.  He experienced all the things that we go through.  But Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord is also God the Son.  He came into being as an infant on earth, but as Son of God, he already existed as part of who God is, the One God.  To become incarnate means to take on flesh.  So he was a real human and he is really God.

 

Jesus was crucified.  He died.  He was buried.  But that wasn’t the end of the story.  On the third day, the Sunday, the first day of the week, he rose again.  That’s why the early Christians moved their holy day from the Sabbath, the Saturday which the Jews observe, to the Sunday, the day of Resurrection – it was so important to them.

 

The life of Jesus is not just something that happened way back, 2,000 years ago.  It affects us now.  It gives us the promise that sin, evil and death can never triumph, because they have been destroyed by Christ when he died on the cross and rose again.  Christ rose into heaven and now reigns over the world as king.  As Christians, we live with God in charge, we are called to live his way.  And that matters, because at the end of time, there will be a judgement.

 

For a lot of Christians, Jesus Christ, Son of God, is the key to the way they understand God and relate to God.  If you want to know what God is like, look at the life of Jesus.

 

And the next section of the Creed gives us this:

 

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

 

Last week, at Pentecost, we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit.  God the Holy Spirit comes to us, lives in us, breathes in us, guides us, helps us to become more like Christ.  The Holy Spirit is the way God relates to each one of us all of the time, individually and as a church.

 

For some people, the Holy Spirit is the key way they relate to God.  They are very aware of the presence of the Spirit in their lives.  They find it motivates them and inspires them and brings them great joy.

 

God the Holy Spirit pours gifts and abilities on us to enable us to do God’s work.  You can tell when someone is living in God because they show the fruit of the Spirit in their lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Not everyone has all these precious elements all of the time.  But you know when someone is growing in faith when you see the fruit flourishing.

 

God asks a lot of us, but we don’t have to rely on ourselves.  We know we can’t achieve it on our own.  But the Holy Spirit works through us and makes great things happen.

 

The Creed then moves on from expressing our belief in God to talking about how we as a church relate to God:
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

 

The Church is the body of Christ here on earth.  It is how we relate to God and to each other as the people of God.  The Church is catholic because it is everywhere.  It is apostolic because it flows from the role of the apostles appointed by Jesus.  We become part of the church through baptism, when our sins are forgiven.  We live as the people whom God loves, whom has forgiven and made new.  As a church we prepare for the end of time when the dead shall be raised and God will establish a new order.  But we live now with God in charge, doing our best to work with God in establishing God’s way of doing things here and now.

 

We say the Creed every week.  It is what we as a Church believe.  There have been times in my life when I haven’t agreed with all of it.  As a teenager, there were lines I wouldn’t say.  But the journey of faith is not static, we grow and develop in understanding and commitment.  The Creed is a weekly reminder of what we believe about who God is in order to help us grow into our relationship with God the Most Loving Father, God the Son who put himself on the line to rescue us from all that is evil, and God the Holy Spirit who helps us to be creative and loving and joyful.

 

We believe.  We are a people who believe.

Peace be with you

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Do you remember Terry Waite? He was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s peace envoy who was captured by terrorists in 1987 and held captive in Beirut for nearly 5 years.  He was on “Saturday Live” on Radio 4 yesterday morning introducing his inheritance tracks.  This is a weekly slot when someone tells the story of the music that had been handed on to them, usually by parents, and the music that they would like to hand down to the next generation.  The music that Terry Waite wants to pass on is Karl Jenkin’s ‘The Peacemakers’, which is a musical meditation on peace.  Terry Waite himself wrote the words for one of the 17 tracks in that piece, and this is how it goes:

 

Peace is the fragile meeting of two souls in harmony.

Peace is an embrace that protects and heals.

Peace is a reconciling of opposites.

Peace is rooted in love.

It lies in the heart

Waiting to be nourished, blossom and flourish

Until it embraces the world.

May we know the harmony of peace,

May we sing the harmony of peace,

Until in the last of days

We rest in peace.

 

We talk a lot about peace in the church.  But how seriously do we take it?  And how can we live it?

 

Jesus appears amongst his disciples on the Day of Resurrection and says ‘Peace be with you!’  The disciples are in a state of fear.  The doors are locked.  Something really weird happened that morning.  Peace be with you.

 

Jesus is offering Peace as a gift.

 

And that’s a story for us too when we live fearfully, when our inner doors are locked, when we can’t cope with life, when Jesus wants to engage with us – Peace be with you.

 

Accept the gift.

 

Another song in Karl Jenkin’s ‘The Peacemakers’ uses words by the Dalai Lama:

 

We can never have peace in the world if we neglect the inner world and don’t make peace with ourselves. World peace must develop out of inner peace.

Peace starts within each one of us. When we have inner peace we can be at peace with those around us.

 

For Jesus and for the Dalai Lama, peace is our responsibility.  Peace starts with us.

 

That means we have to address the turmoil going on within us:

  • Our fear – my own fear is ending up like my mother, living but not living. Your fear is probably different.  It’s there, somewhere, hiding in the corners of our personality.  It takes bravery to face our fears.
  • our own deep anger, which we may not even recognise – my inner anger bubbles up when I feel discounted by people whose opinions I value;
  • the things that irritate us – we blame them on other people or whatever is ‘out there’, but really, they are our own responsibility not someone else’s. We are responsible for our own responses to the things that happen.
  • Our desire to hurt others, to point out their wrongdoings and to take pleasure in their discomfort;
  • our failure to forgive;
  • Our failure to let go of hurts – we hold on to them and cultivate them and they grow within us.

These are some of the things that undermine peace.  When we bury them inside ourselves, they don’t go away, but emerge in our attitudes and behaviours which are not peaceful.  We’re human – that’s what happens.  We talk about peace, but so often, in the things we do and say, we undermine peace.

 

Peace be with you, Jesus says.  Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.  We can only be peacemakers when we make peace in ourselves, when we make peace with ourselves, when we make peace with each other.

 

Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus turned up that night.  How did he feel when he got back from whatever he had been doing and found that Jesus had been there?  Maybe he was angry because he had missed seeing Jesus, and everyone was talking about the encounter, and he felt excluded.  Maybe he felt he just couldn’t believe anything that was out of the ordinary.  His doors were shut to the Risen Christ.   But he protested that he was not going to believe the other disciples until he saw for himself.

 

A week later, the following Sunday, Jesus appeared again.  Once again the doors were shut and suddenly Jesus was there among them.  Whatever the resurrection body is, it doesn’t need doors.  This time, Thomas saw him.  Jesus says again: Peace be with you.  This time, Thomas heard him.  And Jesus insisted that Thomas touched the wounds of crucifixion.  They were still there, the injuries of his dying taken into the resurrection.  This time, Thomas touched him.  Thomas responded: My Lord and my God!  He opened his doors to the Risen Christ.  And he accepted the peace.

 

Thomas stands for all of us when we struggle to believe, and then when we open our doors to let Jesus in.

 

Jesus comes here among us and says: Peace be with you.  And he invites us to see him, to hear him, to touch him.  He is here in the sacrament of bread and wine, and he is here in each person.

 

Every time we come together as a church, we say: Peace be with you.  When you offer peace today, give each person your peace, your inner peace, the desire for harmony, for love and reconciliation and your promise to look out for the other person, to protect them and heal them, nourish them and help them flourish.

 

Another text in Karl Jenkin’s ‘The Peacemakers’ is from Mother Teresa:

 

Peace begins with a smile. If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

Remembering

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This is a day of remembrance.  A day for remembering the liberation from slavery and oppression in Egypt.  It was never an easy freedom.  The book of Exodus tells a long tale of Moses’ attempt to persuade Pharoah to let the children of Israel go, culminating in the arrival of the Angel of Death who passes over the people of the Hebrews but kills the first born of Egypt.  Liberation does not happen without death.  At last they are getting ready to leave and they share a meal of roasted lamb.  And this meal is given as a perpetual memorial, the annual meal that connects them with leaving the place where they were mistreated.  And this Passover meal is still shared to remember the hard won freedom, as it was on Monday evening in many homes in Bensham.

 

And then some 1,300 – 1,400 years later, the Passover is celebrated once again.  Jesus has his Last Supper with his disciples, which may or may not have been the actual Seder meal.  There is no mention of lamb, which would have been central to the Passover meal.  Rather, Jesus reinterprets the Passover in terms of bread and wine.  Again, he makes the meal a memorial.  “Do this in remembrance of me”, he says, as he breaks the bread and shares it.  And at the end of the meal, in Paul’s account, he takes the cup and declares that this is the new covenant, the new relationship between God and man, a relationship sealed in the blood of Christ on the cross.

 

Once again the meal of bread and wine tells the story of liberation, but this time liberation is from the slavery of sin and the oppression of death.  And the sacrifice that effects salvation is not the slaughter of sons, but the self-giving of the Son of God.  “This is my body” says Jesus.  “This is the new covenant in my blood.”

 

And so we eat the bread and we drink the wine.  We share it, because we are all in this together.  And we remember.  We remember Jesus, all that he did and said, and the way he was taken to the cross and hung and died for our sakes.  And we know that isn’t the end of the story, but for the moment, we remain there in the darkness, standing at the foot of the cross while the light of Christ is extinguished.

 

We look back.  That is the purpose of a memorial – to look back.  We look back and we relive the story of liberation from Egypt and we relive the story of the Last Supper.  We are there, and we are part of it.  And Christ is here, with us, and every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together.

 

But we also look forward to another meal, the great banquet of the kingdom of heaven when we will feast with the Lord himself.  There were so many stories about the heavenly meal.  Heaven is like a banquet where everyone is invited, where there is enough for everyone, a place for everyone who wants to be there, where no one is excluded.

 

This is a moment out of time: we look back to where we’ve come from and we look ahead with much anticipation to the Great Feast of the Kingdom, and we are present here in this moment, gathered around this table with Christ our Lord, here and now.  We bring the past into the present, and the distant future becomes NOW!

 

And that changes us.  We are transformed by being here tonight.  We are made into God’s Freedom People, made fit to serve God, fit to serve in our church, our communities, our world.  Our calling is to carry on the story, to free our church, our communities, our world from slavery and oppression, from sin and death.  We are called to work for justice, for what is right, to liberate individuals who are enslaved by poverty or circumstances or forced into labour without any say.  We are called to feed those who are hungry and campaign about the causes of poverty.  We are called to acts of mercy and healing, to listen to those whose voices are not heard.  We are called to hold the hands of those who suffer and who anticipate the coming of the Angel of Death.

 

But we do not do this work unaided.  Christ is with us.  Christ works through us.  Christ feeds us and nurtures us, so that we can do his work.  And we do what we can do.  We do what Christ asks us to do.  We do what Christ enables us to do.  And we can do no more.

 

But tonight, we are here to remember, to give thanks, to praise God, to stand alongside the disciples as they receive the bread that is the body of Christ and the wine that is his blood. And in being here, we proclaim the Lord’s death, and wait until he comes again.

I have decided to follow Jesus

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He came at night, when no one could see where he was going.   He came out of the dark, from the dark of the night and the dark of the soul.  He had seen the buzz growing around Jesus.  He had been on the edge of the crowd when he was teaching and healing.  His colleagues were dismissive; they didn’t believe that this was of God.  The new teacher had emerged from outside the regular structures.  He hadn’t gone to rabbi school; he didn’t come from the right family.  They were convinced that this was a flash in the pan.  It would all go away, like so many other religious outsiders, here today, gone tomorrow.  But Nicodemus was disturbed.  Something inside of him was drawn to Jesus.  He wanted to know more.  So he went to see him.  In the dark of the night.

 

He starts all polite, with tact and diplomacy.  He tells Jesus that he recognises that there’s something going on here, and unlike the rest, he’s convinced there’s something real going on.  God is in this, for sure.

 

Jesus cuts out the small talk and goes straight to the chase.  You can only know the things of God if it’s there in you in the first place.  Only those who are in the kingdom can see the kingdom.  And if you want to be part of it, you have to be born again, from above, from God.

 

Now there’s a phrase that has caused confusion over the last 2,000 years.  People have used it as a label, as a way of separating different kinds of Christians, those who have been “born again” from those who haven’t.  Those who were “born again” were those who had experienced God for themselves in a real encounter with the living Lord, those who could tell the story about how they made their commitment to following Jesus.  Last week, Chris told us how he made that commitment when he was 10 years old, at Spring Harvest.  He didn’t use the phrase “born again”, but that’s what Christians a generation ago would have said.    The problem was, when people used that label to separate those who could put the experience into words from those who didn’t have a story to tell.

 

For other groups of Christians, being “born again” was about the sacrament of baptism, going through the waters of life and rebirth to become part of God’s team.

 

During the Talking Jesus mission last week, I took a Pakistani Christian priest to visit two schools.  He was a musician, and he brought his harmonium and taught the children to sing a song that he had grown up with, and that was great fun, because we learnt it in Urdu as well as English.  The song goes like this:

 

I have decided to follow Jesus (repeated x 3).

No turning back, no turning back.

 

This week, on Tuesday, we baptised 12 young people at St Aidan’s School, and I talked about how they had decided to follow Jesus.  I asked them why they wanted to be baptised, and three of the children told me, in front of their parents and godparents, in front of the school, that they wanted Jesus in their lives.  It was so moving!

 

There is something very special about the moment when people decide that they want to follow Jesus.  It is a threshold.  You go through a door and find yourself in a different place.  You come out of the dark and find yourself in the light.  It’s a new start.  From now on, your life is about walking on the road with Jesus.  It doesn’t make life any easier, because sometimes God asks you to do difficult things, but you know God is with you, and you are sustained and supported by the love of God, by hope, by faith, and you are open to God’s peace and joy.

 

Of course, life gets more complicated than that.  Sometimes, you stray off the road.  Often, our lives get so cluttered with things going on, with other priorities, with the sheer business of living.  The faith side of our life grows darker for a while.  The shutters come down.  And we find we need to turn back, refocus, make the decision once again to follow Jesus.  There are times when we want to go deeper, to grow in faith and hope and love, and we turn to Jesus again and make a new commitment.  We turn to him when things seem dark, and he gives us light.

 

Why?  The Gospel reading shows us why.  Jesus tells Nicodemus: God so love the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

 

God loves us.  God loves us so much, and he wants us to believe in him, to have a relationship with him, to live as part of God’s kingdom.  God wants us to flourish in him.  He is there, waiting for us to turn to him, reaching out to us.  Jesus is there for us.  And when we say YES, and let him into our lives, he walks with us and guides us and helps us and heals us.  And bit by bit, we learn to shape our lives in his way.  And God starts to shine through us, so that other people can glimpse the light in us.

 

And Nicodemus?  What about him?  We hear of him again at the end of John’s Gospel.  When Jesus has died on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea provides a tomb and Nicodemus comes along with spices.  Jesus had warned him that he would have to die, and Nicodemus turns up to help.  He has come out of the dark of anonymity into the light of public commitment and service.

 

It’s a story that invites us to look again at our walk with Jesus and turn to him again, to say YES, Jesus, I do want to know you, I have decided to follow you, now, and always.

Altering our Maps

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I was reading a book on the history of maps.  Humans have used maps as a way of making sense of the world and as an aid to getting around.  The earliest known map goes back around 2,500 years.  It shows the sea surrounding the known world, with a few key cities marked, such as Babylon.  The early maps were a bit lacking in terms of showing the whole world, and one country in relation to another, because the people who were making the maps simply didn’t have the knowledge: they hadn’t explored far enough, and they didn’t have the tools for setting it down.

 

Early mapmakers used different lenses to view the world, and the way they understood the world influenced how they shaped the world in their maps.  Various places were regarded as the centre of the world, the belly button of the world, and these cities would literally be placed in the middle of the map, and the rest of the world set out in relation to them.  And in the early Islamic maps, where the direction of Mecca was the most important thing to show, which was usually in the south, then south was shown at the top of the map.  For Christian maps, east was the most important direction, so some maps had east at the top.   It was a while before the convention of having north at the top developed.  No map ever had west at the top, because the west was where the sun died, where it was believed we all go when we die.  And whether you have north or south or east at the top of the map changes how you view the world.

 

There is no such thing as a perfect map: the world is constantly changing, the shape of countries alters with coastal erosion or accretion.  When I was a child, a lot of countries appeared on the map in red, the extent of the British empire.  That’s not the case now – there is no empire.  And the science of mapmaking is improving all the time.  So there is a constant work in improving the maps.

 

Maps are not just about the geographical world.  Maps can also be used to show politics or economics or religion in relation to the physical world.  They arise out of how we see the world.

 

When Jesus lived on earth, he changed the way we see the world.  And the incident in today’s Gospel reading changes the way the disciples understand Jesus and set a new direction for his journey on earth.

 

The disciples had come to know Jesus as a preacher, a teacher, a healer, a miracle-worker.  They had seen the way he engaged with people, changing their lives.  They had seen the way in which he challenged the religious and political authorities by the things he said and just by being himself.  Then Jesus asked his disciples about who they thought he was, and explained to them that he would have to suffer and to die, and that’s not what they wanted to hear.

 

Today’s Gospel comes in six days later.  Jesus takes Peter, James and John – the core team – up a mountain.  And when they get there, something truly amazing happens.  Jesus is transfigured: he shines with light inside and out and is changed.  Two figures appear with him, and the disciples recognise them as Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the first and foremost prophet.  They three of them have a conversation, which the disciples are not part of.  Then a cloud overshadows them and the event is over.  They know something amazing has happened, but they do not know what and it will take time before they understand it fully – if they ever do.  And somehow it changes everything.  It changes the way they understand Jesus.  Peter had declared that Jesus was the Messiah – this experience confirms that and shows how awesome that is.  Suddenly Jesus is bigger and greater than they ever imagined.

 

From now on in the Gospel, Jesus is heading towards the cross.  The direction is clear.  He has started telling his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to die, but that’s not part of their picture, the map they have planned in their own heads for what being a follower of Jesus is all about.  Jesus is constantly having to alter their expectations and their understanding.

 

On Wednesday, Lent begins, and this marks for us the beginning of Jesus’ journey to the cross.  Over these next few weeks, we will walk with Jesus along the way.  And we remember our own mortality.  At noon on Ash Wednesday, we will have a service to mark each one with an ash cross, remembering that we are dust, and we will all return to dust.  Do come to that service if you can.  And every Tuesday, we will meet as a group to learn and grow together.

 

Lent is a time when we should be prepared to have our own interior maps corrected and realigned.  We are all encourage to make a special effort to come closer to Jesus, to understand a little more, know a little better just how much we are loved by God, and find ways of loving God and our fellow humans a little more.

 

People take on various kinds of spiritual discipline in Lent:  reading a spiritual book, taking part in the Lent Group, praying a little more, spending more time with God, or giving more towards charity or the church – almsgiving is one of the essential spiritual disciplines.  Fasting is an ancient spiritual discipline that we are not very good at these days in the church – we tend to think of it as giving up chocolate or wine, rather than taking it seriously, but it can be a very beneficial discipline.

 

The transfiguration changes Jesus and the way the disciples comprehend Jesus.  It changes the direction of travel – now the journey is towards the cross.  We need to open up our own maps of how the world works in relation to God, and allow God to give us a bigger, clearer, more godly perception, so that we can walk the way of Christ ever more surely.

Choose Life

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Jesus is still on the mountain, still talking to his disciples about how to live the good life, and he doesn’t mean about living indulgently with your every whim pandered to.  Jesus is talking about how you live as a good person, and he tells his followers, as he tells us, that being a good person is not necessarily what you think it is.  Jesus is always trying to challenge your assumptions.

 

This time, he’s challenging those people around him, who think that if you follow the rules, you’ll be fine, so you don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t bear false witness, honour the older generation, and so on, and when you have done all this, or not done all those wrong things, you think you’re safe and there’s a comfy chair in heaven with your name on it.

 

There’s a poetry in the way that Jesus gives his teaching.  You hear the pattern of his words.  He says it 6 times in this part of Matthew’s gospel, 4 times in the portion we had just now, and the other 2 in subsequent verses.  He says: You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …”  They have heard it said in the scripture that they all know so well, and Jesus is supplementing what they already know from their holy books.  He is going deeper into the rules; he is taking them further.

 

Jesus says: you have heard that it was said … You shall not murder, but I tell you, if you are so much as angry with someone else, you need to go and sort it out.  If you’ve got problems in your relationships with family or friends or the wider community, it’s no good ignoring the difficulties, you’ve got to address them and sort them out.  Phew!  That is a much tougher standard.

 

I met families at funerals, and sometimes there have been fallings out in the past, and people don’t talk to each other for years, and then there is a death, and people go to their graves without any resolution to the tensions.   That is so sad!  And it is wrong!  Jesus says – go and sort it; wherever you can, work out a way forward.

 

If you’ve got an issue with someone, go and talk to them about it.  It’s no good moaning to everyone else and not dealing with the problem.

 

The implication is that if you don’t sort things, if you nurture your resentments, if you cut people off, it is like murder.

 

The standards of living the Jesus-life are so much higher than you find in the rule-books.

 

And you get it again with the other examples.  Jesus says: you have heard that it was said do not commit adultery, but I say to you that if you look lecherously at someone, that’s just as sinful.  Jesus says: you have heard that it was said if you’re going to divorce someone, do it legally and properly, but I tell you that marriage is for life.  Jesus said: You have heard that it was said: don’t swear falsely, but I tell you don’t make oaths at all.

 

Jesus sets an impossible standard!  Anyone would have great difficulty following the rules the way Jesus interprets them.  But that’s the point, I think.  None of us can, by our own efforts, live up to those standards.  Humans cannot live perfectly.  We should try to live good lives, but we can never ultimately succeed.  But it isn’t a competition for salvation.  Salvation has been given to us by God’s grace.  It is a free gift.  God loves us just for being us, not because of our success at living up to a moral standard.

 

Jesus is also making us think about the way we read scripture.  Jesus was addressing those who take what they read in the bible at face value.  As far as they are concerned, the bible sets out the rules that must be obeyed, and if you follow them, you’re OK.  And Jesus is saying: Scripture is the start of the study, the beginning of the conversation, but you need to look at the ideas and intentions behind the scripture and think about what it means in your life, in your context.

 

People play fast and loose with scripture.  You see this when they are fighting over any important issue: whether it was the ordination of women or what to do about homosexual people or the other big issues of the past.  There are always those who say:  This is what it says in the bible, and they will quote chapter and verse about why women shouldn’t be allowed to lead worship or lead communities and gays and lesbians shouldn’t be allowed to love one another.  But they are playing fast and loose with scripture because they are only taking the superficial meaning and not looking to discover God’s will.  In Scripture, you will find demands that are contradictory, and you have to look beyond the surface meanings to what God is saying here and now, in this place, at this time, to this community.  You always start with scripture, yes, but you need to study it wisely.

 

And people can be selective about which biblical rules they follow and which they ignore.  They will tell you that a loving gay couple can’ get together, but they will happily eat shellfish, when the bible tells them not to, or wear clothes with mixed fibres.  The rules are not pick and mix.  If you are not following some of them, you have to have a rationale.  Sometimes it means setting some of the rules against Jesus’ core message to love one another.  Some of the instructions get in the way of the golden rule.

 

I take scripture very seriously.  I read portions of the Old Testament and New Testament every morning and every evening.  I wrestle with scripture every time I sit down to write a sermon.  And I am trying to understand what God wants of me here and now, and wants of this community, and the world.  And it’s not as straightforward as following a rule book.

 

In the Old Testament reading we had first, Moses is setting a choice before the people of the Hebrews:  Choose life, by loving God and obeying God, and persevering even when you are struggling.  That way you will and gain God’s promises.  Choose life!

Light of the World

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If you go right back, all the way to the beginning, it was dark.  The way the story is told in the first verses of the Bible, the first thing God did was to create the light.  God said: Let there be light!  And right from that moment, God and light were inextricably linked.

 

We are talking poetry here.  Even when there is physical darkness and literal light, the spiritual darkness and the light of life are so much greater.  You have to tap in to your imagination, you have to root yourself in your feelings and fears and hopes.  Because that is where darkness and light make sense.

 

Remember the fear you have felt in deep night when you are alone.  Remember the anxiety when everything is going wrong and your life feels dark.  That is the darkness we’re talking about.

 

Recall those moments of light when the sun is shining on a landscape, or you suddenly realised that you are loved by God, or you see something clearly in your mind’s eye for the first time, and we say that the light is switched on.  That’s what it’s like when we encounter the light.  It’s not just an outside thing, it affects you deep inside.

 

We pick up the theme of darkness and light in the prophets.  Remember the prophecy of Isaiah that we have at Christmastime:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.  ….

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us. ..

And there shall be endless peace   ….   With justice and with righteousness.

 

In some of the paintings by old masters  from the renaissance era, they painted images of the nativity, showing the world as dark, but with light shining from the baby in the manger onto the faces of those who come to see him.

 

We have just passed Candlemas, when we remember how the baby Jesus was brought to the Temple for the purification of his mother Mary.  Simeon saw the family and prophesied that the child was the light to bring light to the gentiles.  So in days past, the church would have had a procession with candles, to remind us of the light that has come into our lives.

 

Later on, we get the wonderful story of how Jesus was transfigured in light on the top of the mountain.  We get another glimpse of who Jesus is.

 

And in John’s Gospel, the adult Jesus proclaims that he is the Light of the World.  Those who follow him will never walk in darkness but have the light of life.  Jesus IS the light, and he brings light into our lives.  There is a famous painting by Holman Hunt called “The Light of the World” and it shows Jesus knocking on a door in a dark wood at night.  Light shines from Jesus and from the lamp he is carrying.  If we open the door and invite him in, then we come to know the light, and the light shines in us.

 

At the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, the theme of light is still strong.  John prophecies a new heaven and a new earth where there is no darkness, no night, no mourning, no crying, no distress, but where God will dwell with his people and He will be the source of light, the one true light.

 

We find the theme of darkness and light in the culture around us.  There is a song by Leonard Cohen – it was played quite a lot when he died recently – called Anthem.  It acknowledges our broken world, where we cannot make a perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything, and, Cohen continues – that’s how the light gets in.  We live behind our masks and build walls against the light, but when things go wrong and our lives crack up, that’s when the light gets in.

 

Give thanks to God.  Thank God for Jesus who is the Light.  Thank God for the light He brings into our lives.  Thank God that when everything is dark, we have hope, because the light is never far away.

 

But there is more.  Today’s Gospel reading takes it further.  Jesus is teaching his disciples on the mountains.  He is explaining what it means to follow him.  He tells them:  You are the light of the world.  You have to let your light shine to others, so that they can see what God is doing.  It’s not just Jesus being the light of the world – now we too are the light of the world.  And we mustn’t hide away, because we are too scared to let our little lights shine.

 

When we receive the light, we are blessed.  What a privilege it is to know Jesus who is the light and who bring us into the light!  It is a privilege that brings responsibilities, because we need to be conscious about bringing the light to other people, even when we are broken and the light is only shining through the cracks, especially when we are broken and the light is only shining through the cracks.

 

The Old Testament lesson we heard just now helps us to understand the light a little better.  It says:  if you remove the burdens that other people are carrying, if you offer food to those who are hungry and help those who are suffering, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.  Living in the light is about how we treat other people, how we show love and kindness, how we stand up for those who are persecuted and support those who are in need.

 

Jesus says: You are the light of the world.  Let your light shine.

 

And he’s saying it to you.

Ready or not

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When I was a child, we used to play Hide and Seek.  The seeker would shade their eyes and count to 100 and then call out “Coming, ready or not”.  And those who hadn’t yet found a hiding place had to hurry and tuck themselves up behind a curtain.

 

Coming, ready or not.

 

You know things are going to happen, but you think you’ve got time to get ready, and then you find yourself caught out, because events start rolling before you’re ready for them.  That.

 

You’re expecting guests.  You have to whip round with the hoover, bake a cake and make a round of sandwiches, and put on tidy clothes.  Then there’s a knock on the door.  The visitors are early.  They are tramping over the wet kitchen floor and demanding tea.

 

Things start happening, ready or not.

 

Then there’s the old couple.  He’s got cancer and she knows he will die, but she isn’t ready to let him go yet.  But he slips away anyway, and she is left bereft.  It was too quick, too soon.

 

Ready or not.

 

It was early in Jesus’ ministry.  John the Baptist had told his followers that Jesus was the lamb of God and Andrew had starting going round with Jesus, and brought in his brother Simon Peter, and Philip and Nathanael had joined the team.  Then Jesus had to go back to Galilee for a wedding, and the lads went along as well.  We don’t know who the couple were.  Jesus’ mother was there, and she seems to be taking some responsibility for the occasion.

 

Then the wine runs out.  Whoops!  Why?  Did someone miscalculate?  Did the extra guests who came along with Jesus tip the balance?  Had the grape harvest failed?  Was there simply not enough money to get in enough wine?  Whatever the reason, it was a great embarrassment.  It was shameful.

 

And Mary says to Jesus: The wine’s run out.  And she gives him that look, which means that he’s got to sort this.  And you and I might have replied:  Mum, I never managed to get to the ATM, and the Offie doesn’t accept plastic.  But Jesus is a bit short with Mary: What’s that got to do with us?  I’m not ready for this.

 

What is it that Jesus is not ready for?  He isn’t talking about a quick trip to the Off Licence.  He says his time has not yet come.  Does he mean: the time for helping out with the marriage celebrations, the time for going public, or the time for offering himself as the Lamb of God for the sins of the world?  And why isn’t he ready?  John has baptised him. Jesus has started gathering the team around him.  What’s he waiting for?

 

Whatever the reason, as you and I know, things start happening, ready or not!

 

By the door there were six stone water jars.  The water was used for washing peoples’ feet as they arrived for the wedding, to purify them, to make them ready to take part in the wedding festivities.  Jesus tells the servants to fill up the jars.  Each one held up to 30 gallons of water, so that was nearly 180 gallons.  And when the jars are full, Jesus tells the servants to serve the wine.  The first glass goes to the master of ceremonies who remarks on how good the wine is.  Jesus hasn’t just produced wine, he has supplied superb wine.  And in great quantity – something like 1,000 bottles.  It must have been some party!

 

For someone who wasn’t ready, that was some party trick!

 

And the story in the Gospel ends by saying that this was the first time that Jesus revealed his glory.  That’s what he wasn’t ready for.  The glory of Jesus is not just because he did an amazing miracle and turned water into wine.  It’s because the story is so much more than that, a story of many layers, which tells us about how the water of Judaism was just a preparation and the wine of God’s kingdom is the fulfilment.  It’s a story in which the heavenly bridegroom attends a village wedding as a guest, and his bride is the people of God coming into the kingdom.  The glory of Jesus is like a wedding feast and we are all invited.

 

So are you coming along, ready or not?

 

Sometimes Jesus wants us to do stuff.  Are you ready or not?  When God first nudged me, wanting me to be a priest, I wasn’t ready.  God came back a few months later, and I still wasn’t ready, though things had shifted.  And the next time God asked me, I said I would, but I wasn’t really ready.  And then eventually, God asked me, and I was ready, and I took the next steps, and here I am.

 

And Jesus wants us to reach out here in Bensham.  He wants us to reveal his glory.  He wants us to give out the invitations to the banquet of the kingdom of heaven.  He wants us to pour out the wine.

 

And that’s why we are having the Talking Jesus Mission at the beginning of March.  The Bishop of Burnley and the Bishop of Huddersfield and their teams are coming along to help us.  Bishops will turn up to shine shoes.  You will see sofas in strange places where you can sit for a moment and have a conversation.  Ordinands from Cranmer will be at the Angel of the North on the Saturday talking to people.  We will give out the angels that people are kindly knitting for us – in order to start of a conversation about the big things, the things that really matter to people, the questions about what life is all about.

 

And God wants you to be part of this.  Can you knit – knit us some angels.  Invite people along to some of the events that are taking place.  Bring friends and family to the special church service on the Sunday morning.  Bringing people along is really really important.  It could make all the difference – to them, and to you.

 

Jesus said he wasn’t ready, but he did it anyway, and the people who were there at that wedding got a foretaste of the banquet of the kingdom of heaven.  We are never ready, never ready for the next step, never ready to get closer to God, never ready to do what God wants.  Do it anyway.

 

Jesus is coming, ready or not.