‘Away from Home’

Sermon for Lent 4

Year C 2019

The parable of the two sons

Luke 15:1-32

‘Just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also.’ Gal 4:29

“Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” 1 John 4:20

‘Away from Home, in Body and Heart’

So we are half way now through Lent, and the fourth Sunday is observed in parts of the Church as Mothering Sunday. In part the roots of this are found in the practise of allowing those in service to go home to Mother for the day, and of course Mother Church.

Returning Home is the journey of the Christian Life, beginning as it does with our ‘coming to our senses’, waking up to the Reality of existence and setting out to find its beating heart.

Of course, Home doesn’t always carry positive and hopeful attributes in our minds. People run away from home. Home is where family is, and on days such as Mothering Sunday down through the years I’ve been confronted with the fact of broken homes and relationships. Mothering Sunday wasn’t universally a day of warmth and joy – and indeed returning to Church can carry similar baggage, indeed it usually does. The family of the body of Christ can be just as challenging, indeed it helps if it is . . .

As a fridge magnet we were once given by some friends put it ‘Friends are the Family we choose for ourselves’. Much as I appreciated the warmth shown by the gift, it troubled me, for of course the grounds of our salvation are not what we choose for ourselves. Our core problem is that we do not love well – so we choose poorly. Our desiring capacity is off beam, and being wrapped up in our self we tend to flock together with those we are like.

Consumers that we are trained to be – we love the idea of this – ‘have the world to your tastes’. Indeed even in the church, there are those who say we each need a church according to our own personality. Yet consciously or unconsciously to choose this path – and it is often unconscious and rationalised to suit our deep misdirected loves – to choose this path is to avoid the difficult task of renewal of our hearts and minds. Which is to avoid God himself, made known to us in Jesus.

(In this regard, as I often say, people become Vicars who have most to learn, for God puts us in a place where we don’t get to choose with whom we worship 🙂 We are given a family 🙂 )

Being a Vicar in a rural context was instructive in this regard, for there was only one (Anglican) show in town. If you were Anglican and it mattered to you, there was no choice. Indeed we were often the only church in ‘town’. And of course then we realised that as the family of the church we weren’t all with the family we’d choose for ourselves . . . as it was of course in the rest of the week. The people we didn’t want ot see on the street, then turned up in church on Sunday

Family dynamics. The Givenness of Family, the givenness of a church family – the arena for finding our way Home, the gift of God, towards the heart of God.

Confronted with the difficulty of the Command to Love those amongst whom we find ourselves – I have been told, ‘but I’m not Jesus!’ Which of course is the point. No, I am not, but to find my way Home I must grow into his likeness, to Love as God Loves, not in the partial selective way we do.
We are not well served by consumer faith, or indeed spectator faith, watching on whilst Jesus ‘does it for us’ His call is to follow, to go with Him, and to be shaped by that cross shaped journey into His Likeness.

Yes, we may well say we believe in Jesus, but to believe in Him is to Know Him – to Know His Heart – to have his heart, the heart of the Father, the heart of God. When we love God with all we have and all we are, His heart grows within us – and if it isn’t growing, we are not loving God.
Jesus said, ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you . . . love one another as I have loved you’ How are we to love one another? With the Love of the Father for the Son . . .

And so in this parable, a parable about our hearts, the focus is not on the ‘Prodigal Son’, it is the elder Son. We can like him be at home in Body, but far away in regard to our heart.

We know little if anything of the heart of the Prodigal – we tend to make a set of assumptions, but they are just that. Judgements of his motives as we observe him, but that is all.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. That’s it. We might say ‘he disrespected his Father!’, ‘he couldn’t wait to see his father dead!’, but the parable doesn’t say that. He simply asks for His share and His Father without hesitation gives it to him, and also btw gives it to the elder son . . . ‘he divided his property between them, a few days later the younger son gathered all he had’ . . . the elder son didn’t, but was welcome to . . .

There are a couple of moments when we see a little deeper into the younger son. He ‘came to his senses’, sat amongst the pigs . . . a place where the senses may well be awakened 🙂 And he tells a story about himself. If we heard well, we may remember an echo of a theme we explored last week, that of shame. And how, full of shame he doesn’t See clearly and he judges his Father.

You remember? We Sin and then for shame, judging God by our standards – we imagine that God cannot forgive – and we hide. Well the younger son decides not to hide and sets off for Home, but in expectation of at the best a place as a servant in his father’s house – yet, as we heard last week ‘your ways are not my ways, neither are your thoughts my thoughts’. We judge the Father incorrectly, we always do, until we have his heart, until we Know not just about His heart, but Know His heart. Until we Love Him, we shall not See Him, or Know Him

The Father’s response, to this errant Son? He runs to meet him! He has been looking out for his return ‘from afar off! He puts his arm around him and kisses him. He doesn’t seem to notice the shame ridden testimony, for that he knows as a cover, a fig leaf of shame – he rejoices to have his dearly beloved Son home. He sees deeper than the surface – he sees the Beloved Son.

He dresses him in the best robe! He orders a ring for his finger, a sign of restoration to full sonship, and sandals for his feet. And a fatted calf is prepared – this is going to be a feast, a great banquet with celebration! What a celebration – when the elder son returns from working in the field, he hears ‘music and dancing’ The word for music is ‘symphonie’ 🙂 But this isn’t like being sat in the town Hall for some high culture, which perhaps we might ‘judge’ – no, it is wild and exuberant! You Have to join in!! To share in the music, to share in the heart of the Father.

The Father is rejoicing! Like the man who found his lost sheep, like the woman who found the lost coin . . . a party is in order! And what a party . . . but someone won’t come in

As I said, we know nothing of the heart of the prodigal – just the odd glimpse, but even that open to misinterpretation – whilst the elder son is revealed. Quite simply, he does not have the Father’s heart for his brother. He does not look with love upon him. He cannot rejoice to have him back . . . and not having the heart of the Father he is estranged not only from his brother, but from his Father also. The two go together . . . we are left wondering if he will respond to the father’s plea regarding his brother . . . will he go in? Or will he shut himself out? As C.S. Lewis puts it ‘hell is locked on the inside’.

For as John says, “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” The elder brother does not know the Father – he has no love for Him. He considers himself a slave, trying to earn his Father’s love . His Father has already given him all he has, but he cannot see it – his heart is closed to his brother and to His Father. He does not Love, thus he does not See, thus he does not Know.

He does not See – all he sees is the Sin the younger son bears – besmirched with Sin – that is all he sees. The younger Son is a scandal, a stumbling block to Him – his vision is filled with his judgement of his brother, and so he cannot See His Father in truth. He is blind by the Sin of his own judging.

When we judge another this is what happens – our eye is filled with what we take to be the truth of a situation and a person, but to See truthfully. We see the mote, and it is all we see. Think of how a single thing fills our mind about a person when we judge them. Apart from Love, we are blind. To Love is to see the other as God Sees . . .

To return to something we explored last week, the purpose of Judgement is to heal. This is the Cross, it is the judgement, it is the place where Sin is shown to be utterly sinful – and we get that far . . . but this is not to See the Cross in truth, for it is also the place of atonement – of Healing. We seeing only the Sin, as we observe the Prodigal, do not see the Cross as the place of healing

Only in the Light of the truth of Sin can healing come about – The Cross diagnoses and Heals! . . . but do we want to be healed? Do we want others to be healed? Do we Love God? Do we love our sister and brother? Are we children of God? Do we love as he loves us?

This is the command of Jesus and the way of Jesus . . . and the business of the church of the messy family we are born into, is to become like him. Loving as he loves us. Having the Heart of the Father.

Do we Know Jesus? Do We See Him? Do we Love Him?

Of course, we  readily enough see God in the parable . . . the Father who throws a party for the Son who has returned, but do we see Jesus?

What is the context of the parable?

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable . . .

The younger Son comes out from the Father’s house – ‘He left his Father’s throne above . . .’

He carries the wealth of the Father – ‘So free, so infinite His Grace . . .’

He squanders it seemingly carelessly to the point of notoriety – on those who don’t deserve it – prostitutes no less!!! – ‘Emptied himself of all but love  . . .’

When at the last he is emptied – he is abandoned by all – and hungers . . . then, carrying all the shame he goes to the face the judgement . . . ‘and bled for Adam’s helpless race’
the judgement – which is revealed to be the place of healing and feasting and celebration . . .

He who was dead, has come to life . . .

Do we see our sister and brother with the Father’s Love?

Do we see Jesus?

May God use this season of Lent to heal the eye of our heart, and together with our brothers and sisters, may we hear with our brother Jesus, his call to come Home.

Amen

Sermon for Palm Sunday – Year B 2018

Sermon for Palm Sunday YrB 2018

Isa 50:4-9
Phillipians 2:5-11
John 12:12-16

‘Christ leads us in triumphal procession’

There are clergy and occasionally sermons you remember very vividly. One such person was the Revd Gordon Dey – who lived and worked on a very tough outer urban housing estate in Bradford. The sort of place common in the UK where the poor having been uprooted were dumped. As a friend who worked in a similar patch and knew Gordon said, ‘you never lived in such places, you lived on them’ So Gordon faithfully worked amongst those who lived on Holme Wood. And people would say of him, ‘he is a little Jesus’ 🙂 He was a beautiful soul.
I remember Gordon preaching once when I was a curate – he was talking I think about the life of a disciple of Jesus, and recounted his first trip in an airplane. He arrived at eat airport and was thrilled at the sight of the huge sleek glossy airliners, and it was a bit of a comedown to see his own small non descriptor and slightly tatty prop plane – his carriage for this momentous occasion – somehow it didn’t seem important enough.

Well Gordon came to mind in my personal bible reading this week where I discovered St Paul obviously finding the Corinthians less than enamoured of him and his ministry. The argument is clearly about whether or not Paul truly might be called an Apostle, and ambassador of Christ – in other words, one with the authority to teach the Church. Does he seem to observers to be sufficiently impressive?

Yet Paul sets out his case for his authority not in terms of his learning, or his eloquence, or his wisdom – nothing that would catch the eye or attract human praise, but rather in terms of his suffering for the gospel – in other words he affirms his ministry in terms of the ministry of Jesus, and opens his account with the words ‘Thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ’

Well, we cannot think of that triumphal procession without considering Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem which to the naked eye had little more than the sense of a great slave revolt. This dirty dusty wandering Rabbi – shunned by those in power and authority, at the head of a disreputable band of North Country fishermen, tax collectors and religious zealots.

Paul’s use of the words ‘triumphal procession’ would summon up for his hearers the well known processions of the Roman legions as they paraded their spoils, their foes, their newly enslaved kings and princes. The glitter of the armour, the sound of trampling boots, the golden Roman Eagle held aloft . . . the contrast with Jesus’ triumphal procession could not be more sharp, as St Paul sought to deflate the Corinthian sense of their own importance.

As Christians we don’t travel first class – that is not our way, for our way is the way of Jesus, and by the standards of the world – well it gives off a bad smell. As St Paul puts it ‘For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.’

Watch the rabble with Jesus – imagine the smell . . . with whom would we walk?

Paul in his epistle to the Philippians puts this in words which are so familiar to us, but which we may flee from embodying – ‘Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus . . . may you be governed by the same attitude, which is not the path of worldly success, but that of worldly self denial – of humility – of remembering that we are dust, as we were reminded at the beginning of Lent. You are of the Earth – earthy, humus, humility. The Earthiness of Jesus and his disciples is about the reality of our human condition.

And Jesus, unlike the first Adam, does not reach out to grasp equality with God – rather he takes the downward path, falling into the ground to die. Those who are going with him, the aroma of Death to the World, but of Life to those who are being Saved – leading all who would follow in what only the shock of Easter will reveal as Triumphal procession – when to use the words of Mary, he will exalt that which is humble and meek

Let the same mind be amongst you as was in Christ Jesus – Jesus is our Way, in His Life and in His Death – and we follow Him, all the way, as we will enact this coming week.

We follow Jesus in triumphal procession – through the hard disciplines of Lent – to Good Friday – learning also to lay down our own lives for Christ’s sake and the gospel, being seeds that fall to the ground to die, to bear much fruit.

Having the Mind that is in Christ is a different way of seeing and living in the world – one in dependence on the one who leads us – God in Christ

Isaiah’s servant of the LORD a foretelling of Christ reveals much of what this looks like

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.

To follow in the way of Jesus is to awaken each morning to teach us – our first words each day should be those of Samuel -Speak Lord, your servant is listening, for in truth everything that is life giving and Good comes from the Word of the Lord. It is to sit eating up on the Word – taking time to begin our day reading form the Word, and then responding

The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.

If we follow the story Israel through the wilderness, we find them continually rebelling against the life giving word of God. Rebelling against his instructions, ‘do these things and your will live’. To follow in the way of Jesus, having the mind of Jesus is only to do what we see the Father doing, and not to reject it – although that might land us in bother with those around us

I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

For God’s Servant, the one walking in the way of Jesus knows The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; And that further fills them with resolves – therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me;

As I have been at pains to point out during Lent, we do not watch Jesus in his time in the wilderness, in his passion, in his suffering and death, we are not simply observers – for ‘wherever I am, there my servant will be also. We are identified with Jesus by our baptism, made his, and living His Life in the World.

It is not glossy and First Class – it looks like nothing to those who are perishing – but to those who are sign saved it is the Wisdom of God – the Way of the Cross – to which we turn our hearts and minds in these coming days, as God in Christ leads us in triumphal procession

Amen

Do not harden your heart!

Sermon for Evensong – Sunday March 18th, 2017

Psalm 95
Exodus 7:8-24
Romans 5:12-21

‘Harden not your hearts’

As today is Passion Sunday, it is worth reminding ourselves of some words of Jesus from the cross – ‘Father, forgive them, for they now not what they do’, a saying which is echoed in our confession, ‘we have sinned in ignorance’. The reality is that we have very little idea about anything. The world is complex and subtle far beyond our imaginings. The people we live amongst, even those we think we know well, are profound mysteries to us. Not one of us has the remotest inkling what it is like to be another person, let alone a tree, or a dog, or a stone. We are phenomenally ignorant, which goes some way to explain the state of the world we inhabit – the metaphor ‘bull in a china chop’ always seems appropriate as we consider the Creation and our place in it. Strangely in an age when in a sense human knowledge has expanded hugely, it is as if this has got worse not better. The illusion that ‘we know better nowadays’ is not born out in the world as it is. Modern humans are more out of balance with the Creation than in any age in history. We know very little of what seems to matter to our very existence.

This is why the Scriptures are full of warnings. A very few, like the commandments, are explicit and clear – murdering or committing adultery, lying or failing to rest – live like this and things will turn out bad for you. But most of life is complicated beyond our capacity to comprehend, and so the Scriptures weave their deeper warnings into story – for in a sense that is precisely what we live in, Story. Reading the human story in Scripture teaches us who we are and where we are and how we should then live.

One example of these warnings is ‘beware of those things which ‘look pleasant to the eye’’ – or ‘you are not very good at judging what is good and what is not!, so learn a deeper discrimination’

So Eve ‘seeing that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, took of its fruit and ate’ . . . She saw, she grasped and she would not let go . . . and it did not turn out well

Again there is a moment in the story of Abraham where his herdsmen are falling out with the herdsmen of his nephew Lot and so they separate and Abraham gives Lot the choice of where to go – ‘Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastwards’ Despite finding himself in a short space of time in a war zone in which he and his family are taken captive and require to be rescued by Abraham, he continues to ‘sojourn in Sodom’ He sees, he grasps, and he won’t let go, and at the last when Sodom is destroyed, Lot’s wife cannot let go of this Dark place and is turned to a pillar of Salt.

Warning – beware of your ability to see well – do not grasp – choose wisely – and learn to let things go . . .

Well this evening’s Old Testament reading carries a serious warning to the one who listens, ‘who listen to the voice of the LORD’ Ps 95:8 What is the story trying to tell us, if we have ears to hear.

Pharaoh is in his own eyes ‘Lord of all he surveys’ – it is all HIs – he Possesses it and that includes the Israelites whom he has enslaved – they are his property. So when Moses and Aaron come before him with a request to ‘let go of the thing he has grasped’ he dismisses them. He will not let go and through the ensuing plagues of which we heard a little, earlier, he grasps tighter and tighter.
As the story tells us – ‘he hardened his heart’ – and Here is a very severe warning here.
If we are alert to the narrative as it goes on, repeatedly we hear ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened . . .’ It is strange that often people will not let go of something which is harming them – and the greater the harm the more we might hold on . . . it may only be a small thing – a harboured resentment perhaps, but we can all too easily cling to such a thing and its power for evil grows and grows. This is one manifestation of what the scriptures call ‘the demonic’, for all to often such things literally take on a life of their own. They become ‘the desire of our heart’

Indeed we may be able to trace something of it within our own hearts. Bitterness, greed, resentment, deception, a grudge . . . these things which we think we control, have control of us – or to use a much maligned word, Sin reigns . . . and like grasping things – it doesn’t lead us to a good place. We’ll return to Sin in a few moments, but first we need to unpack the Dire warning in the story of Pharaoh which is this

As we follow the narrative through the gradually increasing plagues we read over and over ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened’ but towards the end there is a terrifying change. First we read that Pharaoh hardened his [own] heart. That is it became conscious for him – to put it in the explicit and terrifyingly accurate vernacular, he says in his heart ‘I’ll be damned if I let them go . . .’

We might say that at this point, what was unconscious, knowing not what he did, became a conscious decision. After the next plague we read ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened’ In other words there is nothing he can now do to reverse things, his heart is ‘set as stone’ . . . and so to the denouement in Genesis 9:12 – following the plague of boils – ‘But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . .’ God gives us the true desire of our heart . . . the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . . Pharaoh will not let go and goes deeper into corruption until it is revealed that that is what he truly wants and seals the wish of Pharaoh’s heart This is one of the most terrifying verses in the Scripture . . .

As Dante sees the souls bound for perdition he sees that they curse God – no longer might they cry for mercy for they are intractably bound to that which they will not let go. It has become for them a consuming passion and leads only to death . . . and the LORD hardens their hearts. Or as CS Lewis puts it – ‘Hell is locked on the inside . . .’

So Pharaoh in all his wealth and power is set before us as a grave warning . . . What is the remedy?

BUT GOD . . . As we read in St Paul’s letter to the Romans – a remedy for Sin has been provided, in that God in Jesus, While we were yet ‘dead in sins and trespasses’ died for us . . . Paul goes on to explain how though through one man, Adam, Sin entered the world, by the death of one Man, Jesus Christ, Grace, forgiveness and righteousness abounded to many. Miracle of miracles – that which brought death to us, Sin, is overturned and Death becomes the Gate of Life . . .

So, then we might say – why worry about the story of Pharaoh? ‘if it all turns out right in the end’? This was what Paul was accused of preaching ‘What shall we say then? Shall we continue in Sin that Grace may abound? By No Means! How shall we who have died to Sin live any longer in it . . .

This is the clear teaching of Jesus. in John’s gospel, twice Jesus heals and forgives and then warns the person – ‘leave your life of Sin’ – or ‘stop sining or something worse will happen to you . . .’

It is a very false reading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – to say that because Jesus died, the overwhelming love of God is revealed – and so sin no longer matters . . . but this is a fools paradise. One moments reflection on the Hell of so much of the world, and perhaps the Hell of our own hearts reveals that this is not so. Sin, like the bull in the China shop, does untold, often irreparable damage. Rather we look to what it cost God in Christ to save us from our Sin, to save us from ourselves and we resolutely set out, in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, strengthening, encouraging ud, driving us forward, Comforting us in the true sense – no longer to live in Sin. We do not look back. We let go.

This failure to respond to the Saving Love of God is laid out for us in the Old Testament as well as the new. God in his Love and Mercy for Israel, rescues them from slavery in Egypt. From wretchedness and Hell – and brings them out into the wilderness that there they might learn of Life – rather like young children – having to learn that which leads to life and that which does not. ‘Eat Well!’ ‘Don’t put your hand in the fire!’ ‘Seek the Good everywhere and always,!’ ‘Shun that which is evil . . . ‘but they, although they had been the recipients of such a great Salvation, such a rescue, start to whine and complain and also harden their hearts and so do not enter the promised land . . . St Paul says ‘all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition upon whom the end of the ages has come’

So the psalmist having given glory to God – ‘Come let us sing unto the Lord . . . ‘ goes on

O that today you would listen to his voice!
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.’
Therefore in my anger I swore,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’

Today – Hear his voice – harden not your hearts – for God in Christ approaches his Passion – to die for the Sin of the World, to bear its consequences, that Grace may abound.

Let us not neglect so great a salvation – rather let us set our hearts and minds on God’s Goodness revealed, reach out to take hold of THAT – and let go of al that would hinder us

Amen

 

‘Of Trees and snakes, of Life and Death’ Lent 4 Year B 2018

 

Sermon for 4th Sunday in Lent Year B 2018

Numbers 21:4-9

Eph 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

Directing the gaze of our heart

(‘Of trees and snakes, of Life and Death’)

Years ago I remember listening to a haunting recording of Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ prelude – it was played on a reel to reel tape recorder, and a small spool of tape. This was the Christmas letter from a school friend of my father – named John Bennifield. It was haunting because John had recorded his Christmas letter because he was going blind, and could no longer see to write. Thinking back, he can only have been in his mid-forties as my Father was at that time.

John came to mind this week as I pondered our readings, not least our readings from the book of Numbers, because of his occupation. John lived in what was then Rhodesia, and he was in charge of the Snake education Programme – something certain to draw the interest of a young teenage boy – but indeed anyone. I remember him talking about Black Mambas and how they would hang around in trees and drop on you!

Snakes are universally feared – it is wired deep into us . . . and the association between Snakes and Trees – say the Serpent in the Garden and the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, or, the Tree of Life is obvious if you look carefully at a tree . . .

Tree roots are deeply suggestive in this respect and if like us all you are as it were wired to be on the look out for snakes, then the association with trees is clear! And here is a picture form an ancient Scandinavian tradition making it explicit – those of a nervous disposition may wish to look away now.

 

 

 

Trees in all imaginations Present Life to us – so the Snakes which are associated with Death are at the roots working away at the source of Life. (For more on this and the Fatherhood of God, come to tonight’s talk on The Lord’s Prayer )

So to our reading from the book of Numbers and we find the Israelites doing what they like to do. Having been rescued from Egypt, brought from the place of death to the place of Life, they are complaining about their rations. (At one point in the narrative they dream of Egypt as a place of cucumbers and melons – forgetting that it was a place of Slavery and death. Perhaps in our 40 days of Lent, we too are a little weary of our rations?)

But this is a complaint against God, against Life itself and so their soul being weary of the bread, weary of Life, they encounter death in the form of the Snakes.

And God saves them through the agency of the Bronze snake. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. [Picture]

What is going on here? First we are reminded that Sin leads to death. When we live in contradiction to the deep Goodness of things, perhaps with grumbling rather than gratitude as in the case of the Israelites, things go bad. The 10 Commandments as we heard last week are given ‘that we might Live before God’ As I said then, it’s not arbitrary, its written into the fabric of Creation – murder, commit adultery, dishonour your parents, fail too rest, worship the work of your hands – aim at anything apart from the highest Good, that is the Life of God, and things will not turn out well for you.

As St Paul puts it – the wages of Sin is Death . . . and God is constantly perturbed by Israel – the prophet Ezekiel declares the words of God -‘Oh Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ Sin is perverse, it makes no sense . . . Death itself epitomises this meaninglessness. So come the snakes, death reigns.

But what is it with the bronze snake? Well the snake is dead! Death is revealed for what it is – meaning less and empty! Death itself is symbolised as Dead – and so you live. This is the meaning of the Bronze snake, the destruction of death. And so they live.

Which brings us of course to our Gospel reading – ‘just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up‘, The one without sin submits himself to the consequences of Sin – Not Punishment – Consequences which we who were sold in slavery to Sin could not bear

 

. . . that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. to believe is to identify ourselves with Jesus – to be baptised into that death which he suffers . . .
For what do we see here, but The one who cannot die submits himself to death, so that we who are In Him who otherwise can and will die – Might Live! The only one who cannot die submits himself to death – so we join ourselves to him to make a journey we could not make

‘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.’

God in himself – in his fruit – in His Son – in Love opened the door to Life from Death – all that look upon him . . .

Believing in Jesus is to have the eyes of our heart, to direct the gaze of our heart and allow it to rest upon him – as St Paul said in our epistle last week ‘we proclaim Christ and him crucified’ – as he says elsewhere in the same letter ‘ I determined to know nothing amongst you except Christ and him crucified – the Wisdom of God – and the power of God‘. that we who were dead in Sin, might be raised to newness of Life in him

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,– NOT to punish the world in Jesus for its sinfulness – but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned;

but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. . . . and still we see the perversity – that we may still choose to direct the gaze of our hearts elsewhere. Yet –  before there was no choice where we looked – now, Light floods in and we may Live in the Light of his Saving Love. Still God calls people to Repentance – to turn from wickedness and Live . . .

Lent is our time for such repentance – preparing our hearts for the Joy of Easter

As we prepare our hearts for Easter – let us gaze unflinchingly upon Christ Crucified – Mystery of mysteries, Joy of Joys, Wonder of Wonders – The one without sin submits himself to the consequences of Sin – The one who cannot die submits himself to death

And so may we be ready to sing the Easter Hymn with Joy –
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!

Lent and [un]comfortable Christianity

On Ash Wednesday we were delighted to welcome about ten university students from the TSCF new community flats. They had come as a shared discipline to worship together as Lent started. For several, Lent was not something they had encountered before, except as a season to give up chocolate! What is more the practise of Ashing, of remembering their mortality and thus in the seriousness of Life to repent of their sins and believe the Gospel of Christ was also new.

But they were further disoriented (and to be reoriented we often have to become disoriented) for we used the old service from the 1662 prayer book with its strange language. And from time to time I offered an explanation of the text, including the word ‘Comfortable’ (as in ‘Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that turn to him’). Words change their meanings and often if we are not careful we end up saying something opposite to what we thought we were saying.

Above you can see a part of the famous Bayeux tapestry, depicting the victory of William the Conqueror (a Viking!) over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, 1066 and all that . . . In the scene you can see a solider wielding a large club – He is Bishop Odo, a cousin of William, and the wider inscription reads ‘Bishop Odo Comforts the troops’. “With a Club?” I hear you ask.

The word Comfort comes from the Latin Confortis – literally ‘with strength’, or strengthen, or we might say Encourage – (from the French en courage – ‘with heart’). The soldiers are being ‘con-forted’ – that is strengthened for the affray. The Bishop is not back in the field hospital ‘comforting the wounded’, he’s in the thick of it putting some steel (metaphorically) into his troops, with his club. Encouraging them, driving them forward.

This Strengthening, through struggle and testing is at the heart of Lent, for it is at the very heart of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.

We read in Mark’s Gospel ‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

        And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.’

The dove mentioned is not the prettified white dove of our imaginations, but a wild rock pigeon – who comes tearing through the heavens and immediately drives ‘him [Jesus] out into the wilderness’ to be tested by the Satan.

‘Well’, we might say, ‘Jesus did that so we don’t have to!’ (This escape clause is what above all turned the German Philosopher Friederich Nietzsche against Christianity – for it reduced to nothing the demands laid on us by our faith, or to put it more completely, the challenge that Existence itself, GOD places before us). But in this respect, Nietzsche was correct; ‘Comfortable’ (in the modern sense), bourgeois Christianity was and is a fake, and he saw through it.

Lent offers us the opportunity to grow up in our faith, be strengthened for all that Life throws at us, so that at the last we are not lost. For the words of Jesus are plain and True. ‘Where I am going, you cannot now come, but you will come after’ We too must all face what Jesus faced. When we become his disciples this becomes conscious – we become aware of the seriousness of our existence and the urgent call of Jesus.

The Church in her Comforting mercy drives us into Lent as the Spirit drove Jesus into the Wilderness. It is a time for strengthening, for testing to see if we are really ready for what confronts us – then we follow Jesus through Holy Week to the Cross. Only those who have taken this journey will know Easter Joy.

Be Con-forted!
Strengthen that which remains – it is WORTH IT as we follow the one
‘who for the joy set before him endured the Cross’

‘The Secret Place’ – Sermon for Ash Wednesday – Year B 2018

Sermon for Ash Wednesday
Year B 2018

Matthew 6:1-21

Treasures in the hidden place

So today Lent begins. I wonder what we are giving up for Lent? Let me ask a different question, ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ Rule Number 1 – Never tell anyone what you are giving up for Lent! I will come back to ‘Why?’ in a moment.

I wonder what We are giving up for Lent? Let us give up telling people what we are giving up for Lent . . . either face to face, or if we are too frightened to look at real people, on Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever shouts at the world ‘Look at me!’

Of course if we belonged to one of the older traditions of the church, say we were Catholic or Orthodox, I wouldn’t have any temptation to tell anyone what I was giving up. After all, we’d all be giving up the same thing, and if you [s.] think you [s.] are giving up a lot, then I suggest you go and check out ‘Orthodox fasting Lent’ on Google after this service. If anything else it will stop you virtue signalling your sacrifice of chocolate, or it would if we understood the way of humility.

So, then should we abandon the whole ‘giving something up for Lent idea’? After all, what’s the point if I can’t tell someone I’m doing it?? ( and if you think that that isn’t your [s.] problem, then why are you telling Everyone on FB??)

Lent is a season of self denial. It is a season in which we go with Jesus into the wilderness. This is what it is to be a disciple of Jesus. As he says to his disciples, ‘where I am going you cannot now come, but you will follow afterwards’ So as Jesus went into the wilderness to be tested, we newborn in the Spirit go out into the wilderness to be tested.

And as we heard on Sunday, He went there to learn to say no, no to anything, or anybody who would keep Him from the Father’s will, no to anything or anybody which would quench the work of the Holy Spirit in which he had been baptised, that Spirit which brings light and life and healing and goodness, even life from the dead, ‘for as the scriptures say ‘out of the heart of everyone that believes shall flow rivers of living water’’.

So we go there too, to learn to say no. For if we can’t even say ‘no’ to a bag of chips or a piece of chocolate, how on earth [lit.] can you say anything of value? How can you say Yes to Life? How can Life flow from us?

As we considered Jesus is being tested all the time, not only in the wilderness, but all the time. Give us a sign! Show us you are the Messiah! If you are the Son of God . . . until finally he faces the greatest Temptation of all. He was in the Desert forty days and literally starving, ‘If you are the Son of God, turn the stones into bread’. ‘No! – Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that flows form the mouth of God’ . . . But that is as nothing – it is preparation for The Great Trial.

Finally in the excruciating agony of Good Friday – this is of course what Lent is about, preparing us to face Jesus, the one we follow, on the Cross – every sinew in agonising pain, gasping for breath, his body wracked, wrecked, comes the Final Test – ‘If you are the Son of God, Come down from the Cross . . .’ and of course it is a Terrible temptation, because he could, he could stop the pain, pain beyond our comprehension, Everything within him cries out to stop the pain – he could say Yes to the Tempter. Worship Him and it would all be his, except it wouldn’t. He could Prove it . . .

and everything would be lost’ You can have everything . . . on the Devil’s Terms. Public terms – and everyone will see you get what you want – But Jesus says No to the Temptation to go public, and The Salvation of the World is hidden from our eyes

And he commands the same of us – we are following him. We are his disciples. In this testing, in the disciplines of Lent – we are commanded to hide it, to keep it secret.

Our gospel reading embraces the three basic disciplines of the Christian life – Almsgiving, giving to the poor – Prayer – and Fasting. These three are the foundational disciplines of the Christian life – they are how we bring the testing and learning of the desert, of Lent into our daily lives beyond Lent – and the instructions of Jesus, our teacher, are the same for all three. Do it in secret.
When you give alms – ‘do not [even] let your left hand know what your right is doing’ – do not do it publicly and if a all possible . . . hide it from yourself

When you pray – go into your room, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place . . .

When you fast – do not put on a show – keep it secret – ‘do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place’

Jesus shows us the importance of saying no. Only a True No can give rise to a Life giving Yes. As we consider the poverty of the Church in the Western World, is it rooted in our lack of self denial? our inability to say no to anything? And so to say a life-giving ‘Yes’? Healing no one, not even ourselves?

And he ties this saying no, discovered where but in secret in the Desert, to being in secret – not to ‘going public’, not ‘letting it all hang out there’. As we cannot say no even to ourselves, we live in an age where everything is screaming at us ‘Show us! Prove it! Tell us all what you are giving up’ ‘Tell the world what you are going through’ Everything is laid bare, quite literally – there is nothing that you cannot see – there is nothing hidden . . . perhaps it is the final judgement when all the sins of the world are laid out for everyone to see . . . Having the form of religion, but denying its power – like a car tyre – we just opened the valve and let it all out, and we wonder why the Church is so weak?

But . . . in the grace and mercy of God, perhaps not yet. Not while a few persevere, and in obedience which comes from even a mustard seed of self control, say no to ‘going public’ and yes to the hidden way . . . for the power of God is revealed in apparent weakness. His ultimate Power over death itself revealed in the shattered body of Jesus, who would not come down from the Cross, but instead entered the most holy place, once and for all . . .

The Holy place, the secret place – the place hidden from our eyes.

‘Do not store up for yourself treasure upon the earth, where moth and rust corrupt and where thieves break through and steal – don’t advertise to everyone what you are doing for Lent, for then you will have received your reward – whatever you get out of ‘putting it out there’ that will be your lot. Rather store up for yourself treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not corrupt, where thieves do not break through and steal . . . treasures in heaven – in the secret place

In the Temple in Jerusalem, much went on hidden form the eyes of many – but at the centre was The Most Holy Place – the Holy of Holies, and only one person ever went there. Each year the high Priest would go in to offer the Sacrifice of atonement. For what was the Holy of Holies? It was the very centre of the Temple – it was the place where resided the Ark of the Covenant, and over the Ark was the place where God dwelt between the cherubim – it was, for want of a better phrase, heaven on Earth. The secret and hidden place . . .

And so Jesus before the gaze of the public – says no – and rather goes into the hidden place, the secret place, to offer the one perfect sacrifice for the sin of the whole world

So Jesus goes and we follow him. This is what it is to be a disciple.

So let us own our sin in the ash upon our forehead, repent and believe the Good News, the Strange News of Yes through No. Of Truth through secrecy. Of Life from Death – Let us believe on Jesus.

Saying No – Sunday next before Lent – Year B 2018

Sunday next before Lent – Year B 2018

2 Kings 5:1-14

1 Cor 9:24-27

Mark 1:40-45

‘The Hidden Kingdom – True Authority’

‘I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air’

The story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian – out OT reading today – is one full of wonderful and revelatory detail. Every time I read or better hear it, I notice something new. But for a very long time I have associate this story with one of my university lecturers from many years ago now.

In the Biophysics department, Dr Parker was a bit of a legend, but in a mysterious way. He lectured through a beard, seldom looked at anyone, and was at times incomprehensible, and wasn’t one for being seen in and around the department. Yet, he was revered. The story was that if you were looking for an idea for a PhD, you should try and find Dr Parker. If you could find him he would usually be tucked away in a lab somewhere doing something odd, if not incomprehensible, like trying to open a centrifuge whilst it was working, to see what would happen. The rumour was that if you managed to, the centrifuge itself would arise from its vacuum sealed casing rise into the air rather like a flying saucer and bury its way through the concrete slabbed walls of which the whole department was built. Of course it was likely that only Dr Parker knew the truth of this . . . There you would ask him your question and without looking at you he would mutter something through his dense beard, and if you understood him aright you would undoubtedly go off, make your fortune and win the nobel prize for Biology, whilst he continued to do incomprehensible things. And I always think of Dr Parker when I think of Elisha the prophet and especially with regard to the story of Naaman.

Here comes the commander of the Assyrian Army no doubt with a retinue – It’s world war 2 and FM Rommel turns up at your door, probably accompanied by a small panzer division – and Naaman asks for help – the FM asks you for a cup of tea 🙂 ) And Elisha doesn’t even come to the door – he seems to be otherwise occupied, hidden away inside his house and sends his servant with the necessary and to Naaman incomprehensible instructions. ‘Wash in the Jordan, that muddy stream? Aren’t our Syrian rivers far superior?’ But just like the advice from Dr Parker, Elisha’s advice has powerful effect.

Neither Dr Parker, nor more importantly for our purposes this morning, Elisha, were just available whenever you wanted them. But remarkable things flowed from them. Surely we might think, Elisha one might think could set up a website, or the equivalent, a road side stall and advertise ‘Healings here! Come and get your healings! Leprosy, paralysis, raising the dead!’ But he didn’t, and neither did Jesus . . .

These past few weeks we’ve started to hear Mark’s account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and amongst many things two things often stand out. Firstly there is the note of Authority. When Jesus leaves the wilderness he calls the disciples. They just leave their nets and go. He teaches in the synagogue at Capernaum, and ‘they were astonished at his teaching, for He taught them as one having authority’ He heals a man with an unclean spirit, commanding the spirit to ‘Be quiet, and come out of him’ (we will return to this shortly). Again those who look on are amazed at His authority over ‘even the unclean spirits’. Elisha gives an abrupt instruction, and Naaman in obeying it is healed. Elisha has authority, and over and again we hear of The Authority of Jesus . . .

AND that he is often unavailable – he goes apart to pray – and when Peter tells him “Everyone is looking for you!” but he says ‘Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth’
Most significantly for us as we prepare for Lent, we remember how he spends 40 days alone ‘tempted by Satan’. Brett will be preaching on this next week, and Mark is very sparing – two verses. Yet Matthew and Luke give us the details of what is happening in the desert, and as we prepare for this season of our self-denial we might understand why we do what we do, after all, Lent will have begun by this time next week. It is surely better to know why you are doing what you are doing before you start!
And whatever else the temptations are about, they are about Jesus learning to say one word, learning to say No!

As I said a couple of weeks ago, testing times are given to us that we might Grow to maturity. I was with someone not so long ago who was going through a trial, a time of testing, and they said something quite remarkable nowadays, ‘I must take the trouble to seek to learn what God is teaching me in this time’. Testing and trials are about learning, and Jesus’s trials are of a dimension that we can scarce imagine.
Forty days hungry – and ‘turn the stones into bread’ – You Know what you want! ‘just worship me and it can all be yours’. The trial of the Obedience that comes through faith (Romans 1:7). Learning to say No . . . So perhaps Jesus’ hiddenness, his refusal to be wherever and whenever the crowds want him, is the secret to His Authority, humanly speaking. After all Jesus is Every Bit Human, Fully human. He can only learn as we can . . . and perhaps True Authority is rooted first in the ability to say No. Being hidden away, facing the demons . . . funny how we only have dreams of grandiosity on our own, funny how our darkest thoughts only reveal themselves to us when we are alone . . . As the desert fathers would say, ‘stay in your cell, it will teach you everything’, not least to say no to the myriad temptations and delusions we might suffer . . .

Three times Jesus faces the trial of Satan – Three times against the most appalling temptation imaginable he says No and emerges as one who has Authority . . . and so the leper comes to Jesus, and recognising his Authority says to Him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” “If you are willing” The leper recognises that True Authority cannot be manipulated to our own ends.”If you are willing . . .” and Jesus, ‘moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him “I am willing; be cleansed.” At the moment he spoke, the leprosy left [the man]’ (my tr.)
From this Authority flows Healing, Great Healing. An authority learned in the hidden place, rooted in the capacity to say ‘No’.

———

Well at this point it would be easy to go home and if asked say ‘Eric told us we need to say no, or at least more often’, but that is still missing the point which is twofold. What is this capacity to say ‘no’ rooted in? It is after all often easy to say ‘No’ to others but to little effect. No, True Authority is rooted in learning to say no to oneself.
The temptations of Jesus, cut right into the very heart, down into the very marrow of his desires, his deepest desires. He knows that there is only one way, and that that is his Father’s way – ‘Worship God! Him only shall you serve!’ ‘I only do what I see the Father doing’ He submits himself to the Will of His Father – the ends do not justify the means, for the wrong means subvert the ends. Only the Way His Father reveals to Him will bring Life, will bring healing to lepers and those in bondage. So it is not first about learning to say no to others, it is about learning to say no to yourself . . .
But there is even there an all too simple deception. ‘We say no to ourselves by saying yes to others, so always saying yes to others is saying no to ourself,’ – but no. Jesus certainly does not reveal this in his life. For simply always saying yes to others is surrendering your responsibility for your own life. Saying ‘yes’ to every whim within, is no different to saying ‘yes’ to every demand from without, and we have long long known this. Jesus says ‘Those who seek to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake and the Gospel will save it’ but you have to have a life to lose in order to save it!! Simply always saying yes to everyone and everything is not self denial, it is pure victimhood and often leads to deep bitterness and resentment, clinging onto a life that is no life at all. Only the one who Knows their Life can lay it down. And humans have long known this – yet our age is a forgetful age

Socrates, whom the oracle of Delphi (female – the Source of Wisdom), declared to be the wisest amongst men once said that he heard a voice within him. He had learned to unquestioningly obey that voice. It was that subtle quiet voice that would from time to time say ‘no’. He attributed good in his life to never going against that voice.
True self denial is learning to hear the gentle and quiet voice saying ‘no’. Whatever manner of self-denial we choose this Lent, and it is most sad that we have to choose for we will do it alone and may be little help to one another – but whatever self-denial we practise these coming forty days, we do so to learn to hear that small voice, the Holy Spirit’s Strengthening.
For surely, if you can’t say no even to a bag of chips [NZ for crisps in the UK] , then your ability to say yes to others in a meaningful sense is perhaps an illusion. If you have no authority over yourself – why might you think you can in any sense command others or be capable of good towards others? We are then just mere chaos. And it is the chaos without that constantly threatens Jesus.

‘And Jesus strictly warned the man [who had been healed] and immediately sent him away saying ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them’ However, the man went out and began to proclaim it feely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to him from every direction’

Jesus heals the man of his outer affliction, but he is not healed inwardly. He does not Hear the Voice which says ‘No’ The Voice which directs him to hidden obedience before the priests, to the obedience of faith, the hidden way of Jesus – we will explore this more on Ash Wednesday. Rather he disobeys, spilling it all out – and the result is that Jesus is driven away as again and again the Crowds threaten to overwhelm Him. The testing of Jesus does not finish in the desert, that is their beginning. Leaving the desert the crowds press in on every side – hiding The Tempter – always testing Him, always calling on him to throw himself down from the Temple – never satisfied, insatiable – Never able to say, ‘No! Never able to say Enough! Give us a sign, Jesus – and another and another and another!! Insatiable, the mark of demonic possession.

Lent is our preparation for Pascha – for Holy Week, for Maundy Thursday, for the trial of the Garden, and for Good Friday, the Final Trial, the Trial of the Cross . . . Everything, the desert, the chaos of the crowd, everything has been teaching Jesus the perfect way of obedience to the Father, for this moment.
And there once more in the final showdown is the chaotic Crowd – the Last Temptation. The Greatest Temptation. In the agony of Crucifixion he hangs there as the crowd, possessed by Satan himself call out the words of the Tempter ‘if you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross’ . . . Jesus final Trial . . . and his Final ‘No’

As we prepare ourselves for Lent, as we receive Him in bread and Wine – may we reflect upon our human condition, that in order to say the Great Yes to us of Easter Day, the word of Jesus from the cross is ‘No’.

His True and Hidden Authority. Bringing Yes from No. Life from Death

Amen