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!

Heavy burdens

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I watched them coming down the road, a sad trail of folk in the constant drizzle.

 

First there was Julie.  She stopped for a chat.  She had recently moved to the area when she left her partner.  He had been beating her up over many years and she’d had enough, and got out.  Trouble was, he was still after her.  A neighbour in the downstairs flat had recognised her and phoned him to tell him where she was.  He had come straight round and was knocking on her door.  She was so afraid.  And he had told her exactly what he was going to do, just what he was going to do to her.  So she stayed in the flat as much as possible.  She was too scared to go out much.  She couldn’t relax.  The threat of violence hung over her all the time.

 

Then there was George.  He asked for food.  He told me he had a partner and three children.  I gave him the red voucher that he could take to the foodbank.  That would be a lot of food for five people.  It was only later I realised that he had deceived me.  He lived on his own, and had spun me a story about his family so that he could get more food.  And his claim to have had his benefits sanctioned was yet another story.  In reality, he would rather spend his money on drink and drugs than on food.  When he got free food, there was more Diamond White.  I learnt I had to ask for proof when people said that benefits had been stopped and about the size of family.   Nevertheless, his life was messed up.  You could say it was his own fault, and, yes, there’s truth in that, but I never did find out what had driven him to drink in the first place – what was the pain he had to paper over with pills.  Later, I heard that he had been evicted from his house because he had caused such damage.

 

Constance shuffled along the road with her walker.  She was glad to stop for a chat.  She told me all about her John who died four years ago.  They hadn’t quite made their diamond jubilee.  It wasn’t always the best or happiest of marriages, she admitted.  He had been faithful and he hadn’t laid a hand on her, but he was often more preoccupied with his pigeons than with her and the family.  She missed having someone around, someone to bicker with.  It was all the memories they shared, everything they had been through together – that’s what she missed.  She thought about him every day.  Her son and daughter had moved away.  They had their own lives, and didn’t come home very often.  She barely knew her grandchildren.  Her daughter phoned every Saturday afternoon, and that phone call kept her going.  Friends had died or they were stuck in care homes.  Truth was, she was lonely.  Nothing to do, no one to talk to.

 

Zac really did have five children, one in the pushchair and rest straggling behind, his partner Ashley, trying to keep control from the back.  They had furnished the new flat from Bright House and couldn’t keep up with the payments.  The beds would be taken away next week.  Money was always a problem.  There was never enough.  And the benefit cap was a nightmare.  And it was coming up to school holidays, which meant extra pressure.  In term `time, the oldest ones got lunch at school.  There was nothing for them in the holidays.  He had tried to get a job.  But when he was at school, they hadn’t realised he had dyslexia and he ended up with no qualifications.  And then he had been mugged, which left him with injuries and huge anxiety.

 

There was another woman.  I didn’t get her name.  She wanted to tell me what was wrong with the world.  It started with unhappiness with the government, the council and British Gas.   Then she grumbled about her neighbours and the noisy children, and the way they used to kick balls at her back gate deliberately.  After that, it was her family, and the sister she wouldn’t talk to any more because of a deep held grievance going back decades.  I didn’t get a word in edgeways.  She was angry, but didn’t know it; her anger was buried deep – such a heavy weight inside her.

 

What could I do?  I listened.  I let them talk it out.  I gave out food vouchers, and kept a few emergency supplies for those who were desperate. I prayed for them.  That was probably the most important thing.  I carried them on my heart, but they didn’t always want me to keep in touch.  I wanted them to know that Jesus loved them, each one of them, with all their hurts and struggles, that Jesus was saying to them – and to us, all of us –

 

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Welcome

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“Welcome!  Come in.  Sit yourself down.  Make yourself comfortable. Have a cup of tea.”

 

The guest came in, somewhat nervously.  “I haven’t been here before.”  The truth was, she had been to other places, and though they said the words, it didn’t always feel as welcoming as the words made out.  She was never sure how deep the welcome would go.

 

She knew she was awkward.  She knew she didn’t quite fit in.  She would sometimes say the wrong things.  She didn’t mean any harm, but people sometimes took her the wrong way.  And then their non-verbal behaviour just showed that they didn’t really want her there, so she wouldn’t go back.  She didn’t want to go where she wasn’t wanted.

 

And some places just didn’t realise how unwelcoming they were, even when they said they wanted to welcome.  They expected you to know how things worked, even if you hadn’t been there before.  And if you asked for help, they would look down their noses at you.  When that happened, it made her feel small.  Woe betide if you sat in the wrong place.  You didn’t know that Mrs Smith or Mr Jones had sat there since Victoria was crowned queen.  And they hissed at her like she should have known.  It made her want to crawl up in a ball with embarrassment.

 

Some places – you were welcome so long as you did things their way, but if you were different, or you didn’t fully understand, then you got the look.  Some people didn’t really try to listen to you or understand where you were coming from.  They didn’t accept you as you were, but expected you to conform to their way of doing things, their way of being.  There was one time when she had made a suggestion – from her own experience and training she could see how to make a small improvement.  They didn’t like that at all.  They had always done things that way, and they weren’t going to change for an outsider.  She really did feel the outsider then – she was never going to be let in to the inside.

 

With any place there were different levels of joining in.  Just turning up was the start.  And then you might be asked to do some little thing, when they were ready to let you.  But if you said, “I would love to do such and such. Could you put me on the rota?” they were generally not best pleased.  They wanted to be in control.  And what they asked you to do or to get involved in was more about them than about you.

 

She had even been to some places where folk were just plain nasty.  You would hear a group of them in a corner complaining about this one and that one.  Nothing was ever good enough for them.  And you knew fine that if they were grumbling about everyone else, they would soon be moaning about you.  She had left some places because of the grumbling.  She just didn’t want to listen to it any more.  It created such a bad atmosphere – she didn’t need that in her life.

 

There were so many places that proclaimed welcome, but didn’t live it!   She was tired now.  She had done the rounds, and just wanted somewhere where she could feel at home, where she could be herself, and where she was accepted for being herself.  She was willing to help, happy to contribute, but she didn’t want to play psycho-games.

 

The woman, the host, said again: “You are most welcome.  There is a place for you here.”  She was pointing to a particular seat, but it was like telling her she could stay, she could belong.  It felt good.

 

The woman went on: “today is a feast day.  We are so glad you are here today and you can share our meal and be part of our celebration.”

 

The guest replied: “but I don’t want to be a problem.  I don’t want to get in the way.”

 

The woman said: “it is our privilege that you are with us.  We were taught that everyone is to be welcomed like we would welcome Christ.  You carry Christ into this place, and we are pleased to see you.  We are honoured to have you here.  You are a blessing to us, and we hope that you will find a blessing here.  When you are ready, you can tell us your story and we can learn from that, and maybe you will help us as discover our future together.”

 

The guest couldn’t help but feel good.  She had found a home.

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.