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.

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.