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.

Breaking Down Barriers (Radio Version)

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

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

I find it very strange when Christians insist on putting up barriers between people. The barriers might be between those who are considered godly and those who aren’t. They might be barriers of race, gender, sexuality or wealth. They might be barriers about how and when and where people worship. Sadly, it has happened a lot in the Church and still happens now in some places.

I find it strange because it seems to me that Jesus was all about breaking down barriers. He welcomed women and children and treated them as equals, at a time when that was unheard of. As a Jew, he spoke to non-Jews and was concerned about them, at a time when it was common to look down on non-Jews.

Jesus also broke down another barrier which seems strange to us today – the barrier between clean and unclean. This was about whether a person was considered pure under religious law or if there was something which had stained them. This wasn’t just about doing things wrong – a woman was considered unclean while bleeding, and dead bodies were also unclean. And if you had contact with an unclean person, you were also unclean. This was serious because an unclean person was a social and religious outcast until they’d been made clean again. Jesus, though, took no notice of this, with Bible stories describing him praising a woman who touched him for healing from chronic bleeding, and touching the dead daughter of a local religious leader to bring her back to life.

We still have barriers between people, both inside and outside the Church. But I wonder what it might be like if we took more notice of Jesus’s example of breaking down barriers. What if we reached past our social barriers to get to know people who are different from us, or who we look down on? We might be surprised at the good people we find and the ways in which our lives become richer.

Rest

Mark 6.30-34, 53-end

I’ve just come back from a week away in the Lake District with Keith.

 

We had a lovely time, walking, reading and generally relaxing.

 

I did some drawing as well, which I’ve come to really enjoy in the last few months.

 

The main good thing about it, though, was the chance for a break from everyday life.

 

There are lots of things that I enjoy doing, not least being an LLM here, but I was ready for a holiday.

 

Of course, there’s nothing special or unique in my need for rest.

 

We all get tired and need some time off, and we all have our own unique responsibilities, pressures, and concerns.

 

Even things we enjoy or find fulfilling can become too much at times.

 

But do we remember that Jesus was no exception to this?

 

In today’s Gospel reading the disciples have just returned from a mission and are eager to tell Jesus all about it.

 

He’s also recently been rejected in his own hometown of Nazareth and just learned about the death of his cousin, John the Baptist.

 

And people are coming and going, not allowing time for Jesus and his disciples to even sit down and have a bite to eat.

Jesus, in his wisdom, recognises that this can’t go on and searches for rest for both him and his disciples.

 

I imagine the England football team could also relate to this.

 

They’ve faced weeks in the spotlight, having to perform at the top of their game while dealing with constant media coverage and pressure, followed by horrifying abuse for 3 young men who tried their best in the penalties.

 

Yes, they get paid a lot, but that doesn’t save them from emotional, physical and mental tiredness.

 

Hopefully, they can have a break, but this was denied to Jesus and the disciples in today’s reading.

 

As Jesus took his disciples away the crowds followed, desperate to have their needs met.

 

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, other than the occasional out of control dog or maybe wandering onto the road at the wrong time.

 

But sheep without a shepherd in Jesus’s time were in real trouble.

 

They might not be able to find food or water, they were surrounded by dangerous animals, especially at night, and they might become injured or ill with no access to help.

 

Jesus looked at these people and saw that they were needy and in danger, just like the sheep of his time.

 

And like sheep, these people couldn’t see beyond their own pressing needs.

 

A sheep doesn’t care or even understand if a shepherd is tired or sad or ill.

 

It only knows that it has needs and the shepherd is the person to go to for getting them met.

 

So, Jesus turns and helps them, not just meeting their immediate needs, although that was important, but also teaching them to see the bigger picture of who he was and what was really important.

 

It might be tempting in the light of this story to think that to be good Christians we need to always deny our own needs and help others even when we’re worn out.

 

However, it’s often helpful to look at a passage in the light of the Bible as a whole, as doing this can give us a better perspective.

 

In this story Jesus is concerned to give his disciples a rest.

 

There are also 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, saying in Matthew 11, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”.

 

We can also look at the story of the prophet Elijah who, when he was worn out and afraid, was given food, water and rest by God, until he was ready to pick himself up and go on.

 

And, last but not least, one of the first commandments God gives is to rest one day a week.

 

I think what our Gospel story does is remind us that there’s more to Jesus’s experience of earthly life than the cross.

 

We quite rightly focus on Jesus suffering on the cross for our salvation, but we sometimes forget about the fact that he spent 30 years being a human being before that.

 

He was tired, hungry, thirsty, happy, sad, afraid, hopeful, lonely, frustrated, stressed, too hot or too cold.

 

God came to earth to be one of us, to save us in our actual physical lives, to redeem every part of them by experiencing first-hand what it is to be human.

 

So, God understands our need for rest, for food, for time for ourselves.

 

Not only that, he encourages us to meet these needs.

 

When Jesus tried to take his disciples away, he was recognising and honouring their need for some time out.

 

It didn’t work out this time, but I think it’s likely that Jesus found another time and place for them all to have some down time.

 

This is a good time of year for this Gospel reading, as the school year draws to a close 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.

Breaking Down Barriers

Mark 5.21-end

The people in our gospel story today couldn’t have been more different.

 

First, there was Jairus, a respected and important member of the community.

 

He was a leader of the synagogue, and as the synagogue was central and important to the whole community, he was a significant member of society.

 

It was Jairus, among others, by whose invitation Jesus preached in the Capernaum Synagogue.

 

He was bold and desperate enough to reach out publicly to Jesus for help at the time of his greatest need.

 

Then, there was the unnamed woman who touched Jesus’s cloak in the crowd.

 

She too was desperate, but years of being shunned and despised and an awareness that she shouldn’t be out in society made her choose a more private approach.

 

Despite their differences, though, these two are connected by the theme of barriers.

People, including some Christians, seem to like putting up barriers between people.

The barriers might be between those who are considered godly and those who aren’t, according to a set of rigid criteria.

They might be barriers of race, gender, sexuality, language, accents, clothing or wealth.

They might be barriers about how and when and where people worship.

Sadly, barrier-building has happened a lot in the Church in the past and can still happen now.

I find this strange, though, because it seems to me that Jesus was all about breaking down barriers.

 

He welcomed women and children and treated them as equals, at a time when that was unheard of.

 

His disciples were amazed when Jesus told them not to send children away but let them come to him.

 

As a Jew, he spoke to non-Jews and was concerned about them, at a time when it was common to look down on non-Jews.

 

He spoke to a woman by a well in Samaria and granted the prayer of a Syrophoenician woman, while his disciples looked on in confusion.

 

Jesus also broke down another barrier, one which seems strange to us today – the barrier between clean and unclean.

 

This is what we hear about in today’s Gospel reading.

 

The idea of being clean or clean was about whether a person was considered pure under religious law and therefore able to worship God or if there was something which had stained them.

 

It was a ceremonial rather than moral idea – various animals were considered unclean, as were certain skin conditions.

 

They weren’t immoral but they weren’t worthy of God.

 

Importantly for our reading today, though, a woman was considered unclean while bleeding, and dead bodies were also unclean.

 

And if you had contact with an unclean person, you were also made unclean.

 

This had serious consequences as, if you were unclean, you were both a social outcast, shunned by others, and a religious outcast who couldn’t go to worship God until you’d been made clean again through a religious ritual.

 

Jesus, though, took no notice of this in today’s gospel reading.

 

It describes him praising a woman who touched him for healing from chronic bleeding and talks about him taking the hand of the dead daughter of a local religious leader to bring her back to life.

 

Technically, Jesus was now unclean and an outcast, having had contact with two unclean people, but it didn’t stop him reaching out to help.

 

In the process, Jesus showed that there is no condition which cuts us off from the mercy and love of God.

 

In both of these miraculous healings we see Jesus demonstrating the steadfast love of the Lord.

 

This love brings genuine healing and hope to those who have experienced enormous suffering and loss.

 

The woman is restored to health and society; the young girl is restored to life, and in the process the ancient taboos of the law are broken.

 

No one is excluded from the kingdom of God, from the love of God or from the help of God.

 

In saying all this I’m conscious that there are times when prayers seem to go unanswered.

 

There are times when illnesses aren’t healed, people die anyway, and our worst fears come to pass.

 

This is a great mystery which the greatest theologians have trouble explaining, but I think we can be sure that, whatever it looks like, we are all equally loved, held and supported by the God who, in the words of Lamentations, ‘does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone’.

 

There are no people who God doesn’t want, no ways to put ourselves beyond his help, and no barriers that he won’t cross to reach us.

 

Us human beings still put up barriers between people, both inside and outside the Church.

 

But I wonder what it might be like if we took more notice of Jesus’s example of breaking down barriers?

 

What if we reached past our social barriers to get to know people who are different from us, or who we look down on?

 

We might be surprised at the good people we find and the ways in which our lives become richer.

A Ship of Fools, or Calming the Storm

Sermon on Mark 4.35-41

 

what ship plays with icebergs

and plays soft music as it sinks into the ocean?

what ship on the throw of a dice

feeds a prophet to his fishy destination?

what ship breaks its spine on the rocks

and turns the waves black with lubrication?

 

a ship of fools

but there are fools and

those who seem to be

 

what ship is built on a dry highland

is launched in a downpour

and flies on watery wings to the peak of a mountain?

what ship has a crew

of taxmen thieves and fishermen

who decide in the howling storm

to make a small sleeping carpenter

their captain?

 

yes

a ship of fools

but there are fools and

those who only appear to be.

 

This poem by Simon Jenkins suggests that living the Christian life is a bit like travelling on a ship of fools. This talk is about being on a boat with Jesus, and what you might expect to happen on that watery journey.

 

Our gospel story shows that if you’re on a boat with Jesus on the Lake of Galilee then you should expect storms.

 

Galilee is notorious for its storms. They come out of clear blue skies with shattering and terrifying suddenness.

 

If you’re on a boat with Jesus, voyaging across that lake, you might expect to encounter just such sudden storms.

 

And of course, that boat, that lake, those storms, can be seen as metaphors about us and the bumpy ride that we often find ourselves on.

 

We can put ourselves onto that tiny Galilean boat, into the story of that stormy day.

 

So, in your life, if you’re on a boat with Jesus, you might expect confrontation.

 

You’ll be confronted with uncomfortable truths about yourself. You might not be a fisherman, accustomed to travelling this way. You may be a tax collector, a civil servant, a landlubber. Sickly and shaken, out of your depth, you may have to face your weaknesses, on a boat with Jesus.

 

You’ll be confronted with uncomfortable truths about God, too. Things like, when there’s a crisis, when there’s a storm, finding that God seems to be asleep. You’re panicking, you’re fearful, you’re being tossed and blown by the most awful winds of change. And though you know that God’s there with you, God doesn’t seem to be paying any attention. Just when you need him most, if you go looking for Jesus’s help, you may find him asleep.

 

And when you wake him – it’s up to you to wake him – if you’re on a boat with Jesus you might expect to find more questions than answers.

 

Questions like, how do I wake up God? Do I have to tiptoe around, give a little nervous cough, in the hope that the Almighty will stir and notice me waiting there? Can I shout at God, when the storm is loud, can I scream to get God’s urgent attention? Is it ok to pray that way?

 

Questions like, can I argue with God? Call God to account: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”.

 

And if I do get into an argument with God, many many more questions:

Why is this happening to me?

Why do innocent people suffer?

If you’re a God of love, why all this horror?

If you’re a God of order, why all this chaos?

If you’re so powerful, why do you seem so impotent?

What does the future hold for us?

 

If you’re on a boat with Jesus, you might feel like you’re on a ship of fools.

 

Why put ourselves through all this when we could stay calmly on the shore?

 

But some only appear to be fools.

Jesus spoke, and calmed the storm. Overcame the evil in the wind and waves. Let the waters become the sailors’ friend again, no longer their enemy. He restored order to creation. He encouraged the amazed disciples to look deep inside themselves to see if there was any faith there, that might liberate and awaken them to see beyond fear to the loving eyes and strong arms of God.

 

If you’re on a boat with Jesus, you should expect storms, and many questions.

 

But you should also expect God to turn your eyes to another view of the world, one in which storms will be stilled, even if not when you expect. One in which questions will be answered, but maybe not how you imagine.

 

The story of this little boat which Mark told is a metaphor for our spiritual lives. But it’s also something the Bible says happened in time and space. We mustn’t forget that Jesus lived this, in the physical, because that awakens us to expect that, in a mysterious way, he lives with us in the physical here and now, with all its storms and chaos.

 

Jesus is with us in the storms of life as he was with his disciples on Galilee that day. So, when those times come yes, we can shout at God to wake up, we can argue, we can ask questions.

 

And in return we can expect Jesus to ask us to let our fear go the way of the wind, to embrace faith.

 

For storms are real, and so are doubt, fear and despair, but within them stands God, reaching out to pull us to safety.

 

It may look foolish to get into a boat with Jesus, but some only appear to be fools.

Religious humblebragging

A Short Mid-Week Communion Talk

Matthew 6.1-8, 16-18

I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the word “humblebrag”?

It’s a kind of ugly word, in my opinion, but it perfectly captures a particular phenomenon.

It refers to saying something which is designed to seem modest, self-critical or casual while actually highlighting something you’re very proud of.

For example, someone might say “I just spent £2000 on a handbag because I’m so terrible with money”.

Or they might say, “I don’t know why people keep complimenting me on how I look”.

It happens a lot on social media, maybe because it’s easier to do behind a keyboard than directly to someone’s face, where they might laugh or challenge you.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus talks about the religious equivalent of humblebragging – doing good things to get praise from others.

He highlights those who want to be seen giving money so that everyone will know how generous they are.

Those who flaunt their spirituality and prayer life so as to seem holier than everyone else are also condemned.

And those who make a big deal about fasting so that everyone is impressed by their dedication are also not in favour.

Giving, prayer and spiritual disciplines can be good things to do if done for the right reasons – but those reasons don’t include earthly rewards.

A more recent example I came across was someone saying online that Christians should be exempt from lockdown regulations because of all the work churches do to help others.

I try to avoid getting drawn into online arguments, but I felt I had to point out that we don’t do things for what we can get out of them here, but for heavenly rewards and out of love.

Jesus urges us to do good things quietly and truly humbly, because in this way we’re not motivated by looking good or getting praise.

Instead, we’re motivated by doing God’s will, knowing that even if no-one else notices God does.

We may be noticed and praised, and that’s always nice, but it shouldn’t be why we do things.

Our focus and aim are always to love God and others and do what good we can.

And we can rest assured that every good act and loving impulse is noticed and will be rewarded by our Father in heaven, without any need for us to be religious humblebraggers.

 

Change

A ‘Thought for the Day’ for Black Cat Radio – 12th June 2021

As I write this the G7 summit is starting, and the leaders of the 7 most-advanced economies in the world have descended on Cornwall. Apparently, the big discussion this year is recovering from the Covid pandemic, as well as climate change and trade.

As a world we seem to be facing big challenges all round, and although things are definitely improving with Covid, there’s uncertainty about whether restrictions will be lifted on the 21st after all.

We can react to uncertainty in different ways. We can sit back and say “Well, everything will go wrong, so why bother doing trying to do anything about it?”. Or we can resist change by stubbornly clinging on to how we’ve always done things or denying the need to think or do things differently. We might even blame the messenger telling us we need to change.

In his life on earth Jesus met with some of these reactions, and his message that people needed to change wasn’t always popular, yet he never gave up patiently giving his message and doing what he knew to be right. Dealing with change is hard, whether because it makes us uncomfortable or because other people don’t approve, but it’s important to keep going and show patience with ourselves and others if we want to see good things happen. And for people of faith, it’s also helpful to think of God knowing what dealing with change is like and understanding our situation.

I hope that the G7 summit will lead to some positive outcomes, and that we will see the change in Covid restrictions that we’re hoping for, but even if change is a long time coming and harder than we want, let’s never give up hope.

Take care,

Mel

The Holy Trinity & Geometry

Holy Trinity Church, Great Paxton

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2021

Quite a while ago, I did an online course about Quakers, just out of interest. People could make comments and ask questions as we went along, and one thing I remember is someone asking why a certain person talked about the importance of praying directly to God but then prayed to Jesus instead. It seemed she hadn’t grasped that for Christians Jesus is God.

She’s not alone in her confusion because we set a puzzle in Christianity by saying there’s only one God and then talking about Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We say this is a mystery: three persons but one God. Three sides, like the three leaves of the clover leaf; three ‘states’, like water, mist and ice, but one element. But none of the many images we use are exactly right, and it’s a well-known saying among preachers that it’s impossible to preach on the Trinity without falling into heresy. So, it’s no wonder that most Christians, let alone non-Christians, feel confused about the Trinity.

We need to understand as much as we can, though, or we lose a great gift. So, despite the dangers of trying to describe the Trinity, I’m going to talk geometry for a while. Many people think of the Trinity as an isosceles triangle, with two long sides leading up to the Father at the top, and a short side at the bottom with Jesus and the Holy Spirit at each corner. This reflects our human way of putting things into hierarchies. It works well for providing good management in business and industry and is vital for effective armed forces. You get a clear line of command, everyone knows what they can and can’t do, and everyone knows where to lay the blame when things go wrong. But, there is no hierarchy within God. In theology speak, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-equal.

Another way of thinking is to see the Trinity as an equilateral triangle. Here, the three persons are distributed equally, but then we often fall into only ever addressing one of them.

But we could also see the Trinity as a circle. In a circle there’s no beginning or end, no top or bottom, just an eternal dance round and round. And this, I think, is a good way of seeing the Trinity. We can imagine God, always there, always the same, always existing in a perfectly balanced relationship.

But, you might be wondering, what difference does this make? Why the geometry lesson? Well, this is important because the belief that God is Trinity is the basis for the belief that God is also love. If God were not Trinity, but just a solitary individual, the most we could say with confidence is that God sometimes or often chooses to act lovingly but is not in himself love. When we talk about God as Trinity, we say that, even before there was anything outside God for him to love, God’s nature was expressed in the loving relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God cannot help but love because God is a relationship of love, an eternal circling dance.

And this is not just some inward-looking love or an abstract idea. Instead, it has all the hallmarks of love that we recognise: it’s personal, dynamic and creative. It’s full of delight and generosity and wants to be shared. It longs for everyone to see the true loveliness of the beloved, delights in all their successes, and longs to help in their difficulties. And we, the beloved, are invited to join that relationship, to be in God, and God in us. Instead of searching after God we’re invited into the circle. Instead of praying to God, we pray in God.

This, I think, is why we get the story of Nicodemus this morning. Like many religious people, Nicodemus believes to some extent that God is love. But to him God’s love is measured and sensible and follows a set of rules. And he’s worried that Jesus might not be following the rules like he should. He’s gone further than many of his contemporaries, to give him credit, but not yet far enough. Jesus challenges him to let go of his measures and rules and launch himself into the unmeasurable totality of God’s love. God doesn’t love us when we’ve met some requirements, when we’ve changed enough to be lovable, or when we’re lucky enough to be born with the right colour or gender. God just loves. And trying to measure the love of God is like trying to control the wind. Hence, the climax of this passage: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. ‘This is the point of it all’, says Jesus, ‘that God’s beloved people may live with us forever, in our circle of love’.

So, the Trinity isn’t just an idea for theologians to argue about, or a mathematical puzzle. Instead, it’s the basis of who God is, our relationship with him, and our hope for the future.

Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

Good Weather

A ‘Thought for the Day’ for Black Cat Radio – 20th May 2021

I don’t want to jinx anything, but I think good weather is finally arriving! It’s been a cold spring, which has led to me having loads of plants waiting for ages on my windowsill to go out in the garden. Like a lot of people, I really notice the effect of weather on my mood. When it’s dark outside I feel down and like I can’t be bothered to do anything, while as soon as the sun comes out I perk up. I hope the better weather lasts to the bank holiday, as on the last bank holiday I went to visit a friend I hadn’t seen for ages for a walk around with her puppy and we got rained on the whole time.

It’s amazing, really, how something as small as the sun coming out can make things seem easier or more bearable, even if just for a little bit. For me as a Christian such things are a sign of God being with us and loving us. It’s hard to feel blessed when there’s political trouble, the pandemic still isn’t over, and when faced with our own personal troubles. But the promise of the Bible is that even though we will still have difficulties God is right here in them with us. And God sends us things to make life easier – a sunny day, a kind word, a helping hand out of nowhere. The knack is to notice these things and enjoy them and be thankful for them. And even if you don’t believe in God, it’s always worth noticing and being glad about the good things that happen even on bad days.

 

Take care

Mel