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.

Being Rich & The Kingdom of God

Bit late but here is my sermon from yesterday on the grounds of “better late than never”!

 

Mark 10.17-31

When I think about the man in today’s gospel reading I imagine a rather earnest, conscientious person who worries about doing what’s right.

He’s a good Jew who not only knows what he’s supposed to do but strives hard to actually live out his faith.

And as a good 1st century Jew he would’ve been firmly of the opinion that being rich was a sign of God’s blessing.

His friends and neighbours would’ve agreed with him, as well, for everyone knew that if you were a righteous person God would bless you with money and possessions.

This of course also meant that if you were poor you were not so blessed by God and were probably not so righteous.

This is not very far from those who preach the so-called prosperity gospel today, claiming that if only you do what God commands you’ll be blessed with incredible wealth.

But, going back to the rich man in our reading, for all his wealth and his confidence that he keeps God’s law, he seems to feel that there’s something lacking, something that Jesus can supply, so he comes to ask, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’.

 

And Jesus looks at him and loves him.

 

This is the only time in Mark’s gospel when Jesus is said to have loved someone.

Jesus showed his love for many people but in this direct statement Mark is, I think, drawing our attention to the fact that everything Jesus says to the rich man next is out of loving concern for him.

And what Jesus says next is hard and challenging.

He tells the man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor.

There’s no well, how about if you spend less on luxuries, give some money away, increase your offerings to the Temple.

It’s an uncompromising command that seems to cut to the heart of the rich man because he goes away in a state of shock and grief, and we don’t know if he eventually does what Jesus says or not.

Then, Jesus also confuses and shocks his disciples by telling them that it’s as impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

They, don’t forget, also believe that righteousness and wealth go together, hence their shocked exclamation ‘Then who can be saved?’.

This may also be uncomfortable for us, as the link between being a good person and being wealthy hasn’t disappeared from our society.

Just think about how people on benefits are sometimes portrayed as lazy scroungers who waste their money on cigarettes and big TVs.

We also might be aware that, despite all the years of austerity and recession that we’ve had in this country, most of us are in fact incredibly rich compared to much of the world.

 

The temptation here throughout the centuries has been to try to soften Jesus’s words.

So, for example, in the 9th century someone came up with the idea that the eye of the needle was in fact a gate in Jerusalem that camels could only get through if they were unloaded first.

But sadly there never was such a gate.

Jesus is clear: just as large animals can’t get through tiny gaps, the rich don’t fit in the kingdom of God.

 

But why is this?

Is it because wealth leads to the temptation to believe that we’re self-sufficient, with no need to depend on anyone else, and by extension no need of God?

Wealth can lead to arrogance and a feeling of entitlement, and the temptation to think that anyone less wealthy just isn’t trying hard enough, replacing love for our neighbour with a feeling of superiority.

And wealth can cause us to cut ourselves off from other people, becoming cynical about their motives and thinking we don’t need anyone else, and making us hard and closed to human relationships.

This reminds me of a recent storyline in the soap Neighbours, where a long-lost sister of the doctor turned up who was very rich and was constantly pushing people away, including her children.

This was because she’d become so caught up in her wealth and suspicious of other people’s motives that she thought everyone was only after her money – even her 4-year-old grandchild.

 

Or do the rich not fit in God’s kingdom because they hold on to what they have at the expense of others?

Is it that a focus on always having more and better ignores the need to feed and clothe those in need, to ensure justice for the powerless, to protect the weak and vulnerable, to strive to make sure that everyone has enough to live on?

 

I suspect that it’s a combination of these things: the way wealth cuts us off from those around us, and the way it makes us focused on ourselves at the expense of others.

 

Yet, don’t forget, Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him.

Yes, the man was called to a costly discipleship in which he was to give up what he held most dear.

And he had his ideas about righteousness and blessing turned upside down – but it wasn’t some cruel whim.

Rather, Jesus was aiming to reset his priorities and get him into the kingdom.

And if the rich man had stayed long enough he might’ve been encouraged by Jesus saying that even though in human terms a rich person can’t get into God’s kingdom, for God all things are possible.

For Jesus isn’t in the business of making us feel bad about ourselves and just leaving us to it.

In fact, in the Bible making people feel guilty and doing nothing to help is the devil’s job.

Jesus is instead in the business of rescuing people who can’t save themselves.

We often think of this in terms of obvious sins, and bringing justice and help for the poor and vulnerable, because these are strong themes in the Bible.

But Jesus also loves the rich person who’s trapped by wealth in ways they might not even realise, and he comes to save them, and us, as well.

For Jesus looks at all of us and loves all of us enough to challenge us to our core.

Thanks be to God.

 

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Living Faith

15th Sunday after Trinity / Proper 18 / Year B

James 2.1-17 / Mark 7.24-37

 

Once upon a time a man called Nasrettin was invited to a banquet and set out wearing his old patchwork coat.

Along the way he stopped to help capture a runaway goat.

When Nasrettin arrived at his friend’s house, the friend, the servants, and all the other guests ignored him.

He realized that this was because his coat was now dirty and smelly, as well as worn-out.

Nasrettin hurried home, bathed, put on a magnificent new coat, and returned to the banquet.

Now everyone was glad to welcome him.

Delicious food was set before him, which he proceeded to feed to his coat.

“Eat, coat!  Eat!” he said.

The host and guests were horrified.

“Why, surely you wanted my coat to eat,” Nasrettin responded.

“When I first arrived in my old coat, there was no food for me.  Yet when I came back in this new coat, there was every kind of food for me.  This shows that it was the coat – and not me – that you invited to your banquet.”

 

James writes, “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”.

 

We all have a tendency to judge people by how they look or sound.

We might not realise we’re doing it but as soon as we meet a new person or see a stranger come through the door we make decisions about what kind of person they are: rich or poor, educated or ignorant, attractive or ugly, like us or not like us.

Just as one example, it’s said that interviewers for jobs make a decision about a candidate within 60 seconds.

This kind of snap judgement also leads to discrimination.

People are discriminated against based on how they look – their size or skin colour or because of a disfigurement.

People are also discriminated against because of their wealth and social status – a rich businessman receives very different treatment from a homeless refugee.

And people are discriminated against because they are teenagers or elderly or single parents, or because of any number of other reasons.

Yet if there’s one community where this shouldn’t happen it is the Church – but it does.

I remember once being at a church service elsewhere when a man came in who appeared to be homeless.

He came up for communion and was given it but later some members of the congregation complained that this man shouldn’t have been allowed.

In such a way even Christians become ‘judges with evil thoughts’.

The problem, though, is that God doesn’t play favourites, but loves even the worst of us, and especially doesn’t judge between people based on our human standards and prejudices.

So if our faith means anything then it must make a difference to how we treat people.

The kind of faith that believes in God as a kind of afterlife insurance policy without any demands on us to actually do anything is not real faith at all.

As James says, ‘… faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’.

It’s not that we’re saved by what we do but our faith is meant to motivate us into trying to live according to God’s will.

This is sometimes seen as contradicting Paul’s words about being saved by grace and faith.

But actually Paul also recognises the need for faith to lead to action, telling us in Ephesians 2 that we’re created in Christ to do God’s work, and in Romans 6 that we are move from doing the will of sin to doing the will of God.

So, if we have faith we should be wanting to try to live according to God’s standards.

And that includes not judging people by outward appearances, or blindly following the crowd in paying extra attention to people who are rich, powerful or famous while ignoring the poor, the weak and the people on the fringes of society.

After all, ‘God has chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him’.

 

Yet this reading has been rather troublingly placed next to the story of the Syrophoenician woman in today’s readings.

On the face of it the gospel reading seems to contradict the idea that God doesn’t play favourites, as Jesus rejects the woman who comes to him for help on the grounds that she’s not Jewish, and throws in what was a common racial insult from Jews to non-Jews.

It’s not what we expect from Jesus, and to be honest I can’t find an explanation for how he spoke to her that completely satisfies me, although there are several theories.

But I think there is a reason for putting these two readings together.

Although Jesus at first tries to turn the woman away she perseveres because, despite his reaction, she believes that God loves her and her child, regardless of the fact that they’re not Jewish.

She knows that the barriers between people of different races, religions, social statuses or whatever else divides us are less important than God’s love for the whole world.

And through her determined faith she seems to show Jesus that his mission to the Jews is to be widened to the rest of the world, that it’s time for barriers to come down and for discrimination to end.

Jesus has always been clear that he’s come only to bring news of salvation to the House of Israel, but this could be Jesus learning that there’s more to it than that.

It’s an odd idea, perhaps, that Jesus needed to be taught something, but he did come to earth as a human being like us, and so maybe he also needed to learn like us.

And ultimately the message of the gospel did reach beyond the Jews, and break down the barriers between them and us, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

So let us remember that God tears down barriers, rejects favouritism, overcomes prejudice and calls us to do the same, with a living faith that doesn’t just say the right things but also does the right things.

 

Bread of Life

John 6.35, 41-51 / Ephesians 4.25-5.2

11th Sunday after Trinity / Proper 24 / Year B

 

In our reading today Jesus speaks of himself in these words:

 

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

 

During our lifetime we will probably spend over 35,000 hours eating – that’s the equivalent of 8 years of nonstop meals, 12 hours a day.

 

Imagine having to cook that amount of food, never mind consuming it!
Many of these meals will include bread.

 

It’s a common staple found in homes all round the world, and many of us love the distinctive aroma, good taste and soft texture of freshly baked warm bread, just out of the oven.

 

It’s also vital to many people’s survival in some countries and is a symbol of all our daily physical needs in the Lord’s Prayer.
The problem of course is that even after a big meal we sooner or later get hungry again.
Yet in our Gospel reading Jesus talks about food that will satisfy our hunger forever – his very self.

 

Jesus gives himself to us forever because we need him forever.

 

Just as when we eat ordinary bread it becomes part of us and helps us stay physically strong, when we consume Jesus he becomes part of us and helps us stay spiritually strong.

 

If you like, bread makes physical life possible; Christ makes spiritual life possible.

 

But what does it mean to eat the Bread of Life? To consume Jesus?

 

There’s an obvious link with Holy Communion here.

 

When we come to the altar and see and take the bread and wine we have a clear, concrete image of taking Jesus into our selves and being nourished by him.

 

This is an important sign for us because we’re physical creatures who need and understand physical things.

 

Taking and eating actual, physical bread and wine can help make the spiritual truth of God’s presence with and within us more real to us.

 

They help us connect with God and become more fully united with him.

 

Depending on your theological slant this experience can be understood as anything from remembering Jesus’ sacrifice to literally eating the body and blood of Christ.

 

But I think there’s even more to Jesus being the Bread of Life than this.

 

We take and eat when we look to Jesus as our spiritual nourishment, day by day.

 

We take and eat when we continually draw close to him in prayer and worship, spend time with him, get to know him and enjoy being with him.

 

When we carry on reading about him, learning what he said and what he asks of us, and try to put these things into practice.

 

Then Jesus becomes the source of our values and the pattern for our lives.

 

More than that, he lives in us.

 

God himself living within us!

 

He becomes part of us, like the bread we eat.

 

We take in the mind and heart of God, who loves all people as his children and has compassion on the weary and the sinful.

 

As we absorb the Spirit of Christ and his love, justice and compassion, these qualities live more fully in us.

 

This will help us grow into natural imitators of God who live in love, as we heard in our reading from Ephesians.

 

In that reading Paul sets out how we are to live together in a community bound and guided by the Holy Spirit, following the example of Jesus.

 

As we live nourished by him we will find that speaking the truth, handling our anger well, working honestly, being kind to one another and all the other things mentioned in that reading become more and more naturally part of us as we absorb Jesus more and more into our hearts, minds and lives.

 

As we consume physical bread, it gives us nourishment and energy for our physical lives.

 

As we consume Jesus, he becomes the nourishment and energy for our spiritual, emotional and moral lives.

 

Just as physical bread must be eaten and become part of us to bring nourishment to our physical bodies, so the Bread of Life must be ‘eaten’ and become part of us to bring us spiritual nourishment.

 

This isn’t some dutiful, dull eating.

 

It’s not a case of eating your greens because they’re good for you.

 

If we’d had the psalm set for this morning, which is Psalm 34, we would have said “O taste and see that the Lord is gracious”. In other translations this comes out as “O taste and see that the Lord is good”.

 

The Bread of Life tastes good as well being good.

 

Perhaps more like a chocolate bar than a plate of Brussels’ sprouts – unless you happen to prefer sprouts to chocolate of course.

 

Jesus doesn’t offer dull, dutiful sustenance but life in all its fullness – and good things to those who will take them.

 

And it’s important to notice that Jesus says ‘anyone’ who comes to him can have this bread.

 

This is an open invitation to anyone who wants it, with no exceptions, ifs, buts, maybes or small print.

 

It reminds me of Isaiah chapter 55 where it says “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price”.

 

No-one will be rejected and there’s no expiry date on the invitation.

 

Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, says this in his book Do Nothing To Change Your Life:

 

“The door is still open, the welcome mat is still out on the porch, the table laid, your place prepared, the ticket to the party is still valid: you just have to say the word and you’re in………Contrary to all the sensible advice of an anxious and competitive world, there is such a thing as a free lunch. God himself has set the table and everyone is invited.”

 

Solid and good food is available to us all – food that will sustain us on our spiritual journey.

 

It would be a tragedy not to take and eat.

Miracles, Faith and Free Will

6th Sunday after Trinity / Proper 9

Mark 6.1-13 / 2 Corinthians 12.2-10

 

Mark tells us that Jesus has come home to Nazareth after performing a string of miracles, but if he’s hoping for some rest and comfort among his family, friends and neighbours, he’s going to be disappointed.

He goes to the synagogue on the sabbath and begins to teach, and people are reportedly ‘astounded’.

The word translated in our reading as ‘astounded’ is ‘ekplesso’, which doesn’t mean happy amazement but rather disbelief and scepticism.

And it’s not just what Jesus is saying that upsets them.

Their reference to Jesus as the son of Mary is a roundabout way of calling Jesus illegitimate.

Even if Joseph had died Jesus should still have been called Joseph’s son.

He’s still Jewish because Judaism is passed down through the mother’s line but he’s tainted by shame.

So Jesus is scandalous just by his very existence, and now he’s presuming to stand up in the synagogue with all the good, legitimate Jews, and tell them what to do.

Even worse, he’s just a local handyman, not a proper rabbi at all, so why should they take any notice of him.

They knew him when he was just a kid running around in the dirt with his brothers and sisters, so what makes him so special now?

The end result of all this is that Jesus can do almost nothing in the town, apart from heal a few sick people.

Before this point he has stopped a storm, freed someone from being tormented by evil spirits, healed a woman who’d been ill for years, and brought a young girl back to life.

But now, suddenly, all that power is gone, and Jesus can’t do anything.

But why?

Was it to do with the town’s lack of faith?

In his previous miracles Jesus has responded to requests.

He stopped the storm when his disciples woke him and demanded help.

He freed a man from evil when he ran to Jesus and begged for assistance.

He healed a sick woman when she reached out to touch his cloak.

And he helped a dying girl when her father begged that he would come.

But now no-one, apart from a few ill people, has even the faith to ask.

They’re too wrapped up in cynicism and doubt and preconceived ideas about Jesus to see and hear what’s happening right in front of them – the breaking in of God’s kingdom and the start of God doing something new.

And because they don’t believe they won’t ask for help – why would you ask for help from someone you think can’t provide it?

And because they won’t ask Jesus is unable to act.

 

 

Now, I’m definitely NOT saying that if we don’t see miracles or get answers to prayers it’s because we don’t have enough faith or haven’t prayed well enough.

Probably all Christians, even ones of great and deep faith, at one point or another, experience times when they pray for a miracle, a change, a healing, for things to be different, and are disappointed.

Paul refers to this when he talks about his mysterious ‘thorn in the flesh’.

He asks God to take it away three times but his request is refused, and I don’t think anyone could accuse Paul of lacking faith.

Sometimes we have to live with things for reasons that are unclear.

 

But there does seem to be some kind of link between God’s power and our willingness to ask.

There’s a scene in the film Life of Brian where a healed leper complains that Jesus came along and just healed him, when he was doing very nicely begging.

Jesus doesn’t work like that, though – we were created with free will, with the ability and right to decide whether we want anything to do with God or not, and he’s not going to march in and override that.

We may not always get what we ask for but if we don’t ask God won’t force his power on us.

What God can do, though, is find another way.

When Jesus can’t get through to his home town he goes to the surrounding villages and sends out his disciples to spread the message around the area.

And maybe the message filtered back into town and people were able to hear it then, separated a little from the Jesus everyone thought they knew, and maybe not, but the point was that Jesus didn’t spend his time trying to force the kingdom on people.

Instead, he offered it to them, and when it was rejected he accepted their answer and found a new way to get his message out and to bring help to people who needed it.

And if they won’t ask Jesus won’t force his help on them.

Instead he goes elsewhere and finds a new strategy, sending out disciples to spread his message to people who will listen.

 

 

 

This gives us both help and a pattern to follow.

It helps us because it prepares us to face opposition and rejection, even and perhaps especially from those closest to us, because we know that Jesus has faced the same thing.

This means we aren’t alone, and we haven’t necessarily failed.

It may be that the people we’re talking to aren’t ready to hear the message, at least from us, or prepared to be part of God’s kingdom, although that doesn’t mean they won’t ever be.

There’s always hope while God is at work.

And we have a pattern to follow because this story shows us that if something isn’t working we can change our plans, be flexible, find a new way of going about things, maybe involve new people.

The God we follow is living and active and prepared to adapt where things aren’t working, and calls us to be the same.

 

So let us pray that we will always have the faith to ask for God’s power to help us, the courage to bear it when we don’t get what we ask for, the consolation of knowing that we’re not alone in facing difficulties and rejection as we try to spread God’s kingdom, and the openness to God’s Spirit to go to new places, try new things, and see what God can do.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know?

2nd Sunday after Trinity /Proper 5 / Year B

Mark 3.20-35

 

Lady Caroline Lamb said of the poet Lord Byron that he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

If this phrase had been around in 1st century Israel it would’ve been very useful to the enemies of Jesus.

They’re possibly scared of Jesus’ popularity or shocked at what seems to be outrageous behaviour – he’s been healing on the sabbath, casting out evil spirits, breaking rules and arguing with the authorities – and now look, huge crowds are following him.

He could stir them up to anything, to ignore all their carefully laid down rules, to upset the order of things, and he’s not even a proper religious leader.

Jesus is a threat to authority, an affront to law and order, and a dangerous subversive, with his healing people on the sabbath and talk of a new order of things.

And what better way is there to get rid of such a threat than to undermine it with a few words about being mad or bad?

So those who were threatened and upset by Jesus started spreading rumours that he was mad – dismissing his importance and undermining his credibility.

And then some of the religious authorities joined in the campaign against Jesus, announcing that he was in league with the devil, and therefore both bad and dangerous.

After all, in their eyes, the power that Jesus had could only come from God or the Devil, and it couldn’t come from God because God only worked in accordance with Scripture, while Jesus was breaking rules all over the place.

In this way they could justify stopping and containing Jesus, and even say it was for his own good.

But Jesus undermined their game by calmly pointing out the problem with their idea that Satan was fighting against himself.

When there’s a civil war it’s disastrous for that country – we only have to look at Syria to see that.

When members of a household start fighting among themselves it can lead to a family breaking apart.

In the same way, if evil is working against itself, then it’s weakening itself and is doomed.

It just doesn’t make sense to claim that evil is being driven out by evil.

In fact, evil is doomed but not because it’s in a state of civil war.

Rather, evil is doomed because Jesus is here and bringing in God’s kingdom.

All the things Jesus has been doing – all the healings, all the casting out of evil, all the preaching good news about freedom and forgiveness, his choosing of disciples to spread his message – all these things are signs that the kingdom of God is coming and breaking down the walls of the kingdom of evil.

But his enemies are holding on too tightly to the idea that God must work in particular ways, ways that fit with their own understanding and experience and beliefs.

There’s no room for God doing something new or surprising, as everything God does, has done or ever will do is neatly laid out for them in Scripture, tradition and scholarship.

Any change in that pattern doesn’t mean that God is living, active and doing new things, or that what they thought might not be 100% accurate.

Instead, new and different are labelled bad and wrong, and neatly dismissed or treated as dangerous, a tendency that still exists today.

Jesus’ opponents refuse to see the work of the Holy Spirit among them because it doesn’t look how they think it should, and end up labelling what is clearly good – the coming of God’s kingdom – as the work of the devil.

And this attitude leads them to the edge of the unforgivable sin – labelling the work of the Holy Spirit as the work of the devil.

The unforgivable sin has been debated and worried about a lot from the early days of the Church.

But there seems to be a general agreement that is not a case of a one-off misunderstanding of what God is doing, or just making a mistake.

If it was Paul would never have been able to become a Christian on the road to Damascus after strongly rejecting Jesus and persecuting his followers.

And Peter wouldn’t have been able to receive forgiveness and restoration to his position as the rock of the church after denying Jesus 3 times.

Rather, it’s a case of wilful, ongoing seeing and knowing what God is doing and deciding to label it as evil.

It’s not accidentally getting something wrong but rather constantly choosing to deny the signs of God at work among us.

It’s seeing all the good that God is doing but deciding to reject it and literally demonize it.

It’s persistently attributing God’s work to the devil with a stubborn resisting, rejecting and insulting of the Holy Spirit.

Many Christians worry that they might have committed this sin – but worrying about it is a good sign that you haven’t – because those who are genuinely trying to follow Jesus are unlikely to have such a hardened, ongoing hatred of God and rebellion against his work.

But what can we make of the idea that this sin is unforgivable?

Doesn’t this contradict the idea that God can and will forgive all our sins?

Well, I don’t think it’s the case that God won’t forgive but rather that it puts people in a position where accepting his forgiveness is impossible.

It’s rather like hanging off a cliff edge by your fingertips but refusing to accept help because you’re convinced that the person offering it is trying to kill you.

You would probably prefer to hang on hoping for someone else or even to just let go and take your chances if you’re convinced strongly enough of that person’s bad intentions.

Similarly, if a person is completely and persistently hardening their heart so that they see God as evil then they’re not likely to accept his offer of forgiveness and carry out the repentance needed to receive it.

It’s refusal to be forgiven that gets in the way – not reluctance from God.

For, as it says in 1 John 1, verse 9: If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

All that is needed is to turn to God, admit weakness and let the Holy Spirit carry us, instead of resisting him.

So let us not lose heart, or let guilt, worry and fear weigh us down, for we have a loving and forgiving God who longs to draw us ever deeper into his kingdom of goodness and love, if only we will turn to him.

The Good Shepherd: And Being Sheep

4th Sunday of Easter / Year B

John 10.11-18

 

Every year, in the summer, I go to the Lake District with my husband, where we like to go walking and climbing the hills.

They are usually long and hard climbs, but the views at the top are worth it.

What does rather unreasonably annoy me though is that often I’m just about at the top and I’ll come across a sheep calmly looking down at me and chewing away in a relaxed fashion.

I may be paranoid, but this comes across as rather smug when I’ve just spent a couple of hours struggling up to this point.

However, apart from that, I rather like sheep.

In this country they don’t really have too much to worry about.

There are a few animals that might attack them, especially when they’re lambs, but they don’t have to worry about wolves, big cats or bears.

Neither do they generally struggle to find food or water.

This is lucky for them because sheep are pretty defenceless animals.

So they need a leader, someone to take care of them who they can trust and follow.

When Jesus talked about being a shepherd he was talking about a very tough job.

I’m sure being a shepherd is a hard, physical job at any time or place but what Jesus had in mind was a bit different from shepherding in this country.

Here sheep have plenty of grass to graze on, water to drink, fields to be penned up in, shelter at night if needed, and no predators that a human would be scared to face.

But in Israel shepherds had to prepared to stay with their sheep day and night, always ready to fight off wolves, bears and lions, sleeping in front of the sheepfolds in case of trouble.

During the day they had to lead their sheep across miles of barren land to find enough grazing and water for the flock.

And they had to know each member of the flock personally.

This was because with no fields to separate one person’s flock from another, sheep belonging to different people would become mixed up during the day.

Then at night, when they needed to be put in their own sheepfolds, their shepherds would call them by name to come and follow him – or her, incidentally, as women could also be shepherds in Jesus’ time.

For this to work the sheep really did have to know and trust their shepherd.

They had to recognise the shepherd as their leader, defender and guide to food and water.

They had to know that this was someone with the authority, power, ability and willingness to look after them.

If they were faced with a stranger or a shepherd who mistreated them they might well run away or refuse to go with that person, so the relationship between shepherd and sheep was vital.

It’s said, by the way, that sheep can recognise up to about 50 different people and other sheep, and distinguish between different sheep and human voices, so this way of shepherding was entirely possible.

So when Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd he’s saying, ‘I am the person you can trust to provide you with what you need, defend you in times of danger, to look out for your needs, and to bring you home at the end of the day’.

Jesus is the one who goes out looking for us when we’re lost in the dark, scared by storms or have fallen down a hole because we weren’t paying proper attention.

He defends us from the things that try to take us away from him and destroy us.

And although we still face difficulties and sorrows, and must still eventually face death, he stays with us and helps us through everything.

Jesus is also saying that he knows every one of us by name, with all our quirks, flaws, gifts and talents.

He knows who will run and hide when things are hard and who will stand and fight – and loves us all equally.

He knows who will be the life and soul of any gathering and who would rather stay at home with a book – and rejoices in and works with our variety.

He knows who can do what, the things that make us laugh or cry, our likes and dislikes, and our secret hopes and fears.

And he wants only those things will help us flourish and grow in the best way for us and his kingdom – even if they look very different from what the world or even the Church calls good, useful or successful.

Of course, if we follow a shepherd then we also need to remember that in some ways we are sheep.

This doesn’t mean we need to follow blindly and not think for ourselves, although sheep are known to be able to solve problems and so are not quite as stupid as people think.

What it does mean is that we’re meant to be Christians with others.

Sheep are highly social flock animals who become stressed if left alone.

When threatened they draw together for defence, not leaving anyone out to face the danger alone.

From the very beginning God said that it is not good for man to be alone, and the same holds true today.

As Christians we’re called into a new family, a new community, a new kingdom, in which all have a known and cherished place, we’re accepted as we are, and no-one is to be left out in the cold to fend for themselves.

We may be very different from one another, and we may find Jesus bringing people to join us who we find it hard to understand, get on with or agree with.

But they, like us, are beloved sheep belonging to our shepherd – the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

And our job is to be his flock together, to listen, trust, follow and play our part in it, and to welcome in all his sheep as he has welcomed us.

What’s Your Passion?

Jeremiah 31.31-34 / Hebrews 5.5-10 / John 12.20-33

5th Sunday of Lent / Year B

I don’t know what sort of things you’re passionate about.

 

When I say passionate I mean that you feel gripped by them, unable to let them go – you want to spend lots of time doing them because they inspire and excite you or transport you away from everyday life.

 

Perhaps your passion is music, films, crafts, TV soaps, reading, DIY or gardening.

 

Or maybe you long to jump out of planes or trek through South America.

 

When we talk about passion these days we think about an intense desire, maybe even an irresistible force, something we really want to do or have, or a person we feel we can’t live without.

 

Often, when people don’t know what career they want to have they’re advised to follow their passion, on the grounds that if they really love something they’ll enjoy working in that area.

 

Passion, though, is one of those words that seems to have completely changed its meaning over time.

 

Its root is the Latin word patior, which means to suffer.

 

The word is also used to suggest the idea of being driven to suffer by some sort of force.

 

And it suggests the idea of being driven to take action where there is pain and suffering.

 

This is why we talk about the passion of Christ – his suffering on the Cross because of his desire to save all of us from the consequences of sin and bring us into relationship with God.

 

And today is traditionally known as Passion Sunday, the start of Passiontide, when the Church begins to look more closely at Jesus’ suffering during the last days of his earthly life and his death on the cross.

 

Yet, although it seems at first glance that the passion of Christ and what we call passion today are completely different, I think there’s still a link between the two.

 

When we’re truly and deeply passionate about something, or someone, we’ll do anything in pursuit of that passion.

 

We’ll go out of our way to follow it, even if it means working long hours or sacrificing other things, or even undergoing pain and suffering.

 

Think of ballet dancers, for example, some of whom will dance on with horrible pain and injuries in their feet in pursuit of their passion.

 

All of our Bible readings today contain passion in both the old sense of suffering and the modern sense of a strong desire.

 

In the reading from the book of Jeremiah we’re told that God’s law, the will of God as described in the Old Testament, will pass from the written word, from tablets and scrolls and paper and books, into our hearts, so that we can live it out naturally and easily, in closeness with God.

 

The promise is, says God, that he will write his law in our hearts.

 

And this promise comes from God’s suffering as he sees his people betray him again and again, and his strong desire to have a relationship with us despite all of that.

 

Then in the Hebrews reading we see Jesus described as a priest passionately praying to his Father on our behalf with tears and cries in his desire for us to be saved, and willing to accept suffering on our behalf.

 

And finally, we have our Gospel reading, in which Jesus talks passionately about his coming death, and how it will both bring about the victory of goodness and love over hatred and evil, and draw people to him.

 

Although Jesus is troubled he stands firm and faces suffering because of his love for us and his strong desire to win our salvation.

 

And it was this love, this all-consuming passion, that was the basis of Jesus’ life, and which led him to his own passion and death on that Good Friday.

 

It was this all-consuming love and passion that guided all that he said and did.

 

It drove his faith, and it led him in the will of God.

 

It wasn’t easy, and it lead to death, but his death and resurrection have made it possible for each one of us to share in the life of God.

 

And we hear in the Gospel that as disciples of Jesus we’re called to follow in his footsteps.

 

This means we too must have a passion for God that makes us willing to serve him, whatever the cost.

 

We must also have a passion for those around us that means we’re willing to love, help and serve others as Jesus would do.

 

The Bible is quite clear that, as Christians, our faith must be alive and active, and filled with passion.

 

The Christian life is not a passive thing,  but must be a passionate thing.

 

Serving and following are active, not passive – they are things we must actively pursue as Christians.

 

And we do all of this so that God’s name may be glorified, so that his Kingdom may come and his will be done.

 

So that the seed of this old world may pass away and God may bring resurrection life to all of creation.

 

So that we can oppose all that seeks to hurt and destroy and hinder the purposes of God, for although Jesus has won the war against evil there are still battles to fight.

 

So that fullness of life in Christ can come.

 

So that all people may be drawn to Christ as he’s lifted up on the cross.

 

We can play our part in this great plan, in our great hope of faith, by living our Christian lives with passion in all that we do.

 

By being willing to face the consequences and the costs, just as Jesus was, in order that God may work in us and through us and in partnership with us to usher in the new life of his Kingdom to all people.

 

May Jesus’ passion, and the way he passionately led his life, inspire the whole of our lives, and may passion for Christ and for the coming Kingdom consume us and draw us ever closer to God.

 

Amen.