The Rich Young Ruler

Mark 10.17-31 / Hebrews 4.12-16

 

John had learnt and practised all the arm and leg strokes he needed for swimming.

 

His muscles were well-toned, and his breathing regulated.

 

He knew all about how to get off to a winning start, turning at the end of each length and how to pace himself.

 

But one day John said to his coach, “I know all about these things but still can’t swim. What’s going wrong?”

 

The coach took a deep breath and said, “Well, John, I think the time has come when you really do have to actually get in the water”.

 

—————————————-

 

The response Jesus gave to the wealthy man in our Gospel reading was something along the same lines: “You lack one thing … sell what you own … give to the poor … then come, follow me”.

 

The man had learnt all the rules, practised them, and knew all the rhythms of living his faith.

 

Yet, he knew something was missing, he knew he still wasn’t getting there, and he turned to Jesus find out why.

 

So, Jesus looked him in the eye and told him that if he sold everything and gave the money away, he’d finally be swimming.

In other words, he’d be really living the life of faith.

 

It was a step too far for the young man and the encounter ended in shock and grieving, with Jesus also grieving the loss of someone who just couldn’t take that last step.

 

In the eyes of many Jews, wealth, power and status were clear signs of God’s favour, even though the Jewish Scriptures didn’t always agree with them.

 

Hence, the disciples’ amazement at Jesus saying how hard it would be for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

 

In their eyes rich people would surely be first in line as God’s favourites, and if they couldn’t get in, what hope would there be for anyone else?

 

Jesus had turned the order of things upside down, making the first last and the last first.

 

He’d also struck a blow against the young man’s understanding of himself, and it was a hard lesson, though delivered in love.

 

This is the kind of thing our reading from Hebrews was talking about, when it described the word of God piercing, laying bare and judging, but also Jesus sympathising with our difficulties and offering mercy and grace.

 

Jesus laid bare the young man’s desire for wealth, but also loved him and offered him the solution.

 

————————————-

 

At the beginning of today’s gospel story, we might identify with the young man.

 

We might recognise the sense that even though we do our best to follow God’s commandments we’re still missing something.

 

We might have a niggling uncertainty or an empty place in our hearts that aches and longs for something we can’t fully identify.

 

Like the young man, we too might kneel before Jesus and ask him what we must do to receive the assurance and certainty about our faith that we long for.

 

Just as he looked at the young man and knew what had to be done, so Jesus looks on us with eyes of love and knowledge and sees what it is we need.

 

His answer to us, though, might not be “go, sell what you own” because it’s not just the fact that the man is wealthy that makes it difficult for him to follow Jesus.

 

Rather, it’s the relationship the man has with his possessions that holds him back.

 

What he owns gives him a sense of identity and security which are difficult to put aside, even for God.

 

Wealth is a good servant but a bad master, and wealth has become too big a part of who this man is.

 

————————————-

 

The answer Jesus gives to us will be deeply personal.

 

We might already know in our hearts what it is we’re holding on to for our security or sense of identity, over and above our faith and identity in Jesus.

It might be possessions, memories of wrongs done to us, pride in our own abilities, a particular view of ourselves; it might be our job or position in the community; it might be addiction or destructive relationships; it could be any number of things.

 

We might feel that to let go of whatever it is would just be a step too far, that it means giving up something of who we are.

 

Then we’d have to go away, like the young man, shocked at what is being asked of us and grieving because we believe it’s impossible and too costly.

 

But, says Jesus, for God all things are possible.

 

For the young man it seemed impossible to give away all he owned, and he had to go away bruised and heavy hearted.

 

But perhaps he thought more about the words of Jesus and struggled with his own reactions.

 

Perhaps in time, and with God’s help, he did the impossible.

 

Maybe he came round to seeing that whatever he had to give up would be worth it in terms of what matters in the kingdom of God.

 

And if we identify with the young man in this story, we can call upon the great high priest who sympathises with us in our weaknesses and offers us mercy and grace.

 

Then one day, in that mercy and grace, we may well find ourselves doing the impossible and following Jesus with all that we are and all that we own, finding, in the process, who we truly are, and the treasures that really matter.

Childish and Childlike

A Thought for the Day for Black Cat Radio, September 2021

This week I’ve been thinking about the difference between childish and childlike. The word childish goes back to before the 12th century and was originally a neutral word that just meant being like a child, but then it became more negative. If we call a grown adult childish then we’re describing them as silly or immature, acting in a way that we find annoying, like throwing tantrums when they don’t get their own way. The word childlike, in contrast, appeared in the 15th century and is much more positive. It refers to a person who has qualities of innocence, trustfulness, openness, simplicity, joy, curiosity and wonder.

This is an important distinction for me because Jesus calls on his followers to have a childlike faith. By this I don’t think he means being naïve or foolish or not thinking for ourselves. There are other places where he makes clear the importance of being mature. But it can really help us to have some of the positive characteristics of children. Imagine being delighted by simple things like an ordinary flower, finding joy in the everyday. What if instead of playing games and hiding behind false fronts we were more honest about what we need and want, and how we feel? Might this lead to better relationships and fewer people feeling alone with their problems? What if we were more curious and asked things like ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ more often? Might this help us solve some of the problems we face as individuals and as a world, as we stop accepting things as they are and work to change them to how they might be? So many possibilities open up.

So, I hope that we might all find ways to be a little more childlike, and to appreciate the wonder of seeing things through a child’s eyes.

Take care

Mel

Questions, questions

A sermon on Mark 9.30-37

19th September 2021

 

The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Reading today’s gospel passage reminded me of school chemistry lessons.

I was often confused by chemistry, but I was afraid to ask questions because the teacher was always annoyed at my lack of ability.

I didn’t want to look stupid in front of everyone or be told off for not getting it, so I kept quiet and scraped through.

I wonder, though, what might have happened if I had asked questions?

And what if the teacher had shown a little more patience and explained a little more kindly?

Would I now be a chemistry expert?

Jesus’ apostles also had trouble understanding, although I don’t know if they had chemistry lessons.

Just before the reading we heard today they tried to cast out an evil spirit but failed, apparently because they didn’t pray enough.

Then they set off with Jesus to Galilee, and Jesus tried to explain what was going to happen to him: that he was going to be betrayed and killed but then rise again.

Sadly, this did not compute!

The disciples had no idea what he was talking about.

It’s easy for us, with the benefit of hindsight, to know exactly what Jesus was talking about.

It’s at the centre of our faith after all: Jesus died for us and rose again to save us from our sins.

But at the time this was a radical idea.

From their earliest years, the Jews were taught and believed, quite rightly, that God was all-powerful and all-knowing.

They believed that when God’s Messiah came he would crush everyone and everything that stood in his way and rule the world through his mighty power.

The idea that God would let himself be betrayed, tortured and killed was incomprehensible and an insult to his name and power.

So when Jesus said he was going to be betrayed and killed, the disciples, knowing him to be God’s Messiah and therefore expecting him to storm the palace at any moment, didn’t understand – and they were afraid to ask him to explain.

It’s not just that the disciples didn’t understand some piece of information.

They didn’t understand the very heart of the Incarnation.

How is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die?

And why should it happen?

So why didn’t the disciples simply ask Jesus to explain?

Maybe they were still embarrassed by their failure to cast out the evil spirit and thought Jesus was cross with them.

Maybe they just didn’t want to look stupid, each one thinking they were the only one who didn’t get it.

Besides, the closer we are to Jesus, the more we are supposed to know about religious stuff, right?

But what if they hadn’t been afraid to ask?

OK, Jesus is sometimes tough, but is he really the kind of person who would meet a sincere desire to understand with annoyance?

Do we really need to be afraid to ask Jesus to help us follow him?

In short, is Jesus really like a not particularly good chemistry teacher?

This isn’t a problem confined to those first disciples: no one wants to look uninformed, confused or clueless.

We withhold our toughest questions from one another and from God, pretending we don’t have them.

Yet the deepest mysteries of life do indeed escape us.

Why do good people suffer?

Why are people cruel to one another?

Why does evil succeed?

Why does God let the world go on like this?

But we withhold such questions at our own peril.

When the disciples were afraid to ask, to reveal that they didn’t know everything, they began arguing with each other, squabbling among themselves over petty issues of rank and status.

There is a direct line from verse 32, when the disciples didn’t understand, to verse 34, when they started arguing about who was the best.

When the disciples avoided asking hard questions, they focused on posturing about who was the teacher’s pet.

They fell prey to the very human tendency to try to cover up insecurity and weakness with bluster and arrogance.

We’ve seen this too often in the history of the Church: Christians fighting each other over things neither side fully understands but with a burning determination to be right, to be the best, to be God’s favourite, and above all to not be seen as lacking in understanding or getting things wrong.

Going back to our gospel story: how might it have been different if the disciples had asked Jesus their questions?

What kind of conversation might have taken place between Jesus and the disciples?

What kind of relationship might have grown up between them?

And how might our stories be different if we asked our questions?

What kind of conversations might we pursue?

How might our life together as disciples be different as a result?

Might we become more understanding, gentler, humbler and wiser if we became more willing to show our vulnerability to God and each other?

We don’t need to be afraid of questions, misunderstandings, confusion or curiosity in the presence of God, whose “perfect love casts out all fear”.

The good news is that Jesus welcomes us even when we don’t understand or don’t know or are just plain wrong.

The good news is that Jesus welcomes honest questions.

This story closes with Jesus embracing a child, the ultimate symbol of not knowing, not understanding, of being immature and undeveloped, with much to learn – yet loved, welcomed and honoured by Jesus.

May God help us all to cast off fear and ask our questions, knowing that in this way we can grow closer to him and each other.

The Magnificat, or Mary’s Song

Luke 1.46-55

Today, the 15th of August, is one of those times when the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church and the Church of England all celebrate a major feast, that of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

For Roman Catholics, this is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin – a celebration of Mary being taken body and soul into God’s eternal presence as Queen of Heaven.

For Orthodox Christians, this is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God – a celebration of Mary, her earthly life ended, falling sleep-like into the eternal arms of God.

We in the Church of England, however, noting that there’s no account of the end of Mary’s life in the Bible, just mark today as a general celebration of Mary.

Mary doesn’t in fact say that much in the Bible, but among the words she does say, the ones we heard in our Gospel reading have been sung, spoken and chanted for centuries.

To get a good idea of what’s going on here, we need to have some context.

Mary has learned that she is pregnant, even though she’s a virgin.

That’s a huge shock, and a scandal.

She’s also learned that her cousin, Elizabeth, is pregnant.

Elizabeth is too old to conceive, so her pregnancy is also a miracle.

Mary visits Elizabeth. When Elizabeth sees Mary, the baby inside Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy.

Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”.

Imagine how overwhelmed Mary must be by all of this.

Our Gospel for today is her amazing response.

It is beautiful, prophetic poetry, containing strong emotions.

He has shown strength with his arm.

He has scattered … who?  The proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down … who? The powerful from their thrones.

And lifted up … who? The lowly.

He has filled … who?

The hungry with good things.

And sent… who? The rich away empty.

What’s going on here?

It seems like God loves … who? The lowly and the hungry.

How does God feel about the arrogant, the powerful and the rich?

Not so good.

This is the point at which rich and powerful people start to squirm.

And it raises the question, does God hate rich and powerful people?

Let’s see what’s going on here.

God scatters the proud because he hates arrogance and loves humility.

God brings down the powerful because they use their power to oppress others.

God sends the rich away empty because they keep things to themselves while others suffer.

It seems that the issue here is not our level of wealth or how much power we have but rather how we deal with them.

God’s main concern is not with the size of our bank account but with what we do with the money we have.

Do we selfishly hoard our treasures, or do we have generous hearts and a desire to help those with less?

Do our money and possessions make us feel that we’re better than others, or do we see them as generous gifts from God to be used for the good of all?

God doesn’t say that person is powerful, let’s pull him down a peg or two.

Rather, he wants to see power used responsibly, with care for others, with justice and with mercy.

Is power just for our benefit, so we can get what we want, or does it come with a responsibility to use our position to do good?

I think we can safely say that God doesn’t hate rich people.

Rather, God hates arrogance, selfishness and oppression.

God doesn’t hate powerful people.

God hates injustice and misuse of power.

And on the other side, God doesn’t love poor people because they are poor.

God hates it when people are mistreated and will always stand to defend the weak.

The climate report this week highlighted the threat to some of the poorest people in our world, some of whose countries may disappear completely under the sea.

We also heard the horrific news from Portsmouth, including the tragic death of a young girl.

Surely God cares about these things and these people, and will bring about justice for the weak and the poor?

Not, though, so that the lowly can lord it over the mighty in some sort of twisted justice.

Rather, God’s aim is to remind us that each human being is a beautiful creation of God, and we are all equal in his eyes.

God’s work of salvation involves restoring proper relationships not only between God and humanity but also between people.

Mary understood this, and so she sang of God’s new world order, one in which all have value, all are loved, all are cared for and protected, and each person looks out for the good of others.

Much has been said about Mary during the Church’s history, and she’s been exalted in the minds and hearts of some to a degree I’m not altogether comfortable with.

But she did catch a wonderful vision of what God’s salvation means for our world, and for that we can thank her and God.

Bread of Life, or Lunch is not the only meal

John 6.24-35

Did you know that from April 2020 to March 2021 a record 2.5 million emergency food parcels were given out in the UK by the Trussell Trust? This was a 33% increase on the previous year and included 980,000 parcels going out to children. It also included nearly 250,000 in the East of England. These numbers are staggering, and hopefully will go down again, ideally to nothing because we build a fairer society which cares for all.

Horrible though it is, however, to be without food and have to depend on charity, there’s another important kind of hunger. This is spiritual hunger. You might have felt it when wondering if there’s more to life, a deeper purpose behind everything, or if you’ve felt an urge to pray or meditate or do something that has real meaning or makes a difference in people’s lives.

For me, Jesus is a good place to go to have spiritual hunger satisfied, as he describes himself as “the bread of life”. This is an odd way to describe yourself, admittedly, but it’s all about Jesus saying he can meet our spiritual hunger. And he offers himself as a gift to us in this way, freely and without conditions. Many of us, if we’re honest, worry deep down that we’re not good enough. But Jesus just says come, I’ll give you everything you really need.

I think, regardless of beliefs, there’s something wonderful about the idea that spiritual hunger is an important need, something worth looking for, not just a distraction from what people call “real life”. So, my hope for all of you is that you will see and understand your spiritual hunger, and that you will find answers to your deepest needs and longings.

Food, physical and spiritual

A ‘Thought for the day’ for Black Cat Radio on 31st July 2021

Did you know that from April 2020 to March 2021 a record 2.5 million emergency food parcels were given out in the UK by the Trussell Trust? This was a 33% increase on the previous year and included 980,000 parcels going out to children. It also included nearly 250,000 in the East of England. These numbers are staggering, and hopefully will go down again, ideally to nothing because we build a fairer society which cares for all.

Horrible though it is, however, to be without food and have to depend on charity, there’s another important kind of hunger. This is spiritual hunger. You might have felt it when wondering if there’s more to life, a deeper purpose behind everything, or if you’ve felt an urge to pray or meditate or do something that has real meaning or makes a difference in people’s lives.

For me, Jesus is a good place to go to have spiritual hunger satisfied, as he describes himself as “the bread of life”. This is an odd way to describe yourself, admittedly, but it’s all about Jesus saying he can meet our spiritual hunger. And he offers himself as a gift to us in this way, freely and without conditions. Many of us, if we’re honest, worry deep down that we’re not good enough. But Jesus just says come, I’ll give you everything you really need.

I think, regardless of beliefs, there’s something wonderful about the idea that spiritual hunger is an important need, something worth looking for, not just a distraction from what people call “real life”. So, my hope for all of you is that you will see and understand your spiritual hunger, and that you will find answers to your deepest needs and longings.

Rest (Radio Version

A Thought for the Day for Black Cat Radio – 17th July 2021

(This is a modified version of my sermon on the same subject, which you can find here)

I’ve just come back from a lovely week away in the Lake District with my husband Keith, which gave us a chance to have a break from everyday life. Time off is important for all of us. But do we realise that Jesus was no exception to this? In church this Sunday we hear about Jesus and his closest followers being faced with people coming and going, not allowing them time for a sit down and a bite to eat. Jesus, in his wisdom, recognises that this can’t go on and searches for rest.

As Jesus took his followers away the crowds followed, desperate to get help from him. But whereas the best of us might get grumpy in such a situation, Jesus’s response is compassion. He sees them as sheep without a shepherd. Sheep like the ones Keith and I saw in the Lake District don’t really have much to fear, but sheep without a shepherd in Jesus’s time were in real danger. Jesus looked at these people and saw that they were needy and in danger, just like the sheep of his time.

This story might make us think Christianity says we need to always deny our own needs and help others even when we’re worn out. But it’s important to put it in context. There are plenty of references in the Bible to Jesus going away by himself to rest and recharge, and Jesus himself promises rest to those who come to him.

I think what this story does is remind us that there’s more to Jesus on earth than dying on the cross. Christians quite rightly focus on Jesus dying to save us, but we sometimes forget about his 30 years being a human being before that, experiencing all the same highs and lows we do. We believe God came to earth to be one of us, to change our actual physical lives by experiencing first-hand what it is to be human. So, God understands our need for rest, for food, for time for ourselves, and he wants us to have these things.

This is a good time of year for this story, as schools break up and people begin going on summer holidays. Hopefully, the summer will bring opportunities for all of us to sit back a bit, breathe, and get some rest from all the difficulties of the last 18 months.

And as we do so may we all meet with the God who invites us to come away with him to a quiet place and rest for a while.