Our End, and Our Beginning

Following Jesus – Finding the Space for God. Lent Course 2021

PART 2

Following Jesus—Finding the space for God

PART 2

Our end, and our beginning . . .

‘Lucy stayed behind because she thought it would be worthwhile trying the door of the wardrobe even though she felt almost sure it would be locked. To her surprise it opened quite easily, and two moth-balls dropped out’ C.S. Lewis – The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardobe

As we begin our journey, I’d like to suggest an idea. That there are unexplored dimensions to us. That within us are hidden places . . . perhaps even something not unlike Narnia?

Initially as Lucy explored the wardrobe, nothing of significance seemed to drop out. I guess she could have left it there, gone no further. ‘Nothing to see here! Pass along now!’ the door could have remained closed, but Lucy opened it and entered in. (And eventually, others followed her lead)

But where is this going. After all, only a fool thinks that there is a door to another world inside an old wardrobe, or indeed a small child. As Miraz, the King of Narnia says to Prince Caspian ‘That’s all nonsense, for babies . . . Only fit for babies do you hear? You’re getting too old for that sort of stuff . . .’. You may well say that even in Narnia, people don’t believe in Narnia . . .)

Yet didn’t Jesus say that we had to become like a small child to enter his Kingdom?

Indeed didn’t he Jesus say something about seeking the Kingdom of God?

But what does that mean? Pause a moment and see what arises?

Is there a call there for you?  Have you been seeking the Kingdom of God? What does it mean?

Houses serve as metaphors of our lives at all sorts of levels. I know that when I am puzzling over a question, often I will dream of searching the corridors of large old houses that I have known.

If we are fortunate, we live in a house . . . although the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head . . . perhaps there is an invitation there? To step outside of the boundaries of our house, of what we call ‘our life’? To explore a little? Perhaps our life has neglected rooms, hidden realms? Perhaps we haven’t really entered into it at all?

For example, considering not just our life but The kingdom of God; are we on the inside looking out, or the outside looking in . . .

Jesus after all has a habit of turning things inside out and upside down. “The meek shall inherit the earth!” “The first shall be last . . . and the last first” When Jesus speaks of entering the Kingdom of God, there are gates and doors. Some who thought they were in, find themselves on the outside and those whom are thought to be outside enter ahead of them. (Matthew 21:31) Indeed the first person to follow Jesus to the very end, is a common criminal . . . (Luke 23:43)

Follow me!

As we were reminded last week, The Gospel begins with an invitation to follow Jesus. So let us consider how this happens in the gospel of our patron, St John.

Perhaps as those who worship under his patronal care should we ask for it, we especially may find something here . . .

Jesus’ ‘call’ in John is unlike that of the other gospels. Jesus doesn’t call disciples in John, rather folk are drawn to him. Intrigued by him. Nicodemus looks for Jesus in the dark, the Samaritan woman at the well is led to seek after who he is. Shortly after he raises Lazarus from the dead it is suggested that ‘all the world has gone after him’, as some Greeks request “to see Jesus’’.  In John we first encounter disciples looking for Jesus.

John the Baptist twice draws his disciples attention to Jesus. ‘Behold! The Lamb of God!’ The second time, their curiosity aroused, two of his disciples set out after Jesus. Perhaps we might follow with them?

Jesus turns and sees us following, and says, ‘What are you looking for?’

Take a while. Pause . . . Are you following him? Why? What are you looking for?

The disciples’ answer is typical of conversations with a rabbi. Jesus asks a question to which the disciple responds with a question of their own. (What question might you ask Jesus in response?)

The disciples asked him ‘Rabbi, where do you live?’  . . . houses again. He said to them, ‘Come and you will see.’  Jesus calls and invites us to follow him. Away from where we are. To where he is.

Away from where we are . . .

To where he is . . .

Perhaps we might want to stay where we are – to stay home. Perhaps if we wait long enough he will come to us. Or perhaps we are meant to go to him? If we think we know what it means ‘to go to be with jesus’, perhaps we’re in no hurry . . .

Take a moment to pause . . . Stay home? But where is home?

Home is one of the most powerful foundational images we know of as human beings. ‘Homelessness’ is not a Good thing. Being lost likewise. The story of scripture is one which from the beginning concerns our home . . .

“In the beginning”, two stories are told. One is somewhat like watching a construction project, the construction of a theatre stage for the drama which is to follow. Evening and Morning, the first day, the second day . . . elements of the stage are put in place. Light, Lights, water, dry land. It is well ordered. It is declared Good. Finally the Actor is put in place . . . and God rests form all his work in Creation . . .

Then the play begins. There is music, there is in the dramatic scene setting. The stage is a garden and water flows from it. It is intimate and lively in a way perhaps the first story isn’t. God encourages the actor into his role and sees what he will name all the animals. The actor seems at home on the stage, until tragedy strikes. He misreads his cue. He freezes. He hides . . . and finds himself outside of the garden, unable to get in, surrounded by thorns and weeds and with a flashing sword set in the Space which would give entry . . .

But something else shifts in the story. He is no longer lost in the role. Like an actor who forgets his lines, he becomes self-conscious. ‘He saw that he was naked . . . ‘ there is perhaps no more powerful expression of self-consciousness!

Nakedness. It is the most powerful metaphor of feeling ‘out of place’. All the eyes are on you. You want to be somewhere else, you want to hide . . . What are YOU doing here?  And without any clothes on?! For shame we hide away . . .

In the story as the human becomes self-conscious, a form of alienation sets in. Is God telling him he is out of place? Or is he telling himself?? Things become confused. He has lost his bearings. Wherever he looks he finds his life as one of alienation, somehow shut out.

For many if not all of us, the Christian story is in some sense about finding our way home. Usually, and this is the reigning assumption in many ways, we talk about ‘life after death’, and ‘going to heaven when we die’

Take a moment to pause . . . Going to heaven when I die? But what does that mean?

Perhaps we are not hearing correctly.  After all didn’t Jesus say that we had hearing problems? In the same way he goes around healing the blind, suggesting to us that we don’t see right, he also heals the deaf . . . Perhaps they are signs, but perhaps we have taken the in one way when they are meant in another?

Do we assume too much? Is it perhaps easier to think we know what Jesus means? Isn’t it always the way? We know what it is all about . . . After all, if we are certain about that we don’t have to trouble ourselves about it, and just get on with our lives . . .

Like the Garden, we discover ourselves to be outside of somewhere. Let us call it Heaven. That is the name we usually give it. But where is it? Who knows the way?

Jesus has come to take us home – to where he lives. That is why he tells us to follow him, to come and see.

Times and Places

Following Jesus – Finding the Space for God. Lent Study 2021

Part 3

Questions . . . questions open doors. Perhaps they come through these doors?

We’ve been encouraged to sit with questions in silence. The best way to do this is to let the question sink into the silence. Perhaps nothing will come to you. That’s fine. An answer you construct is never as valuable as an answer that comes to you. Perhaps at the end of your time sat with the material, nothing seems to have come up, yet perhaps as you’ve gone about your everyday work something has occurred to you? Do you notice how sometimes in the midst of our going hither and thither, something suggests itself to you? What do you do when that happens? And where did it come from?

Jesus has come to take us home – to be with him where he lives. That is why he tells us to follow him.

Last week as you thought about following Jesus. I wonder what came up? Did it require you go somewhere? ‘Following’ . . . If so, where? And indeed when? If Jesus has gone to heaven, then do we follow him when we die?

I wonder if you recall what that phrase, ‘Finding the Space for God’, summoned up when you explored it in week one? Prayer?

Prayer

Lent comes to us as an opportunity to make space for God, and prayer obviously comes to mind in response. Prayer is one of the three classic disciplines associated with Lent; fasting and almsgiving being the other two. (The Ash Wednesday gospel comes from Matthew 6 where Jesus speaks about these three ways. Reflecting on these verses Chapter 6 verses 19-21 may prove helpful)

‘How is your prayer life?’ How might you answer this?

Recently I met with another minister. He was telling me how much he needed to carve out more time in his day for prayer. Someone else told me how they were struggling to find someone who wasn’t so busy that they could pray with them.

Have you ever felt that way? Do these not uncommon concerns find resonance with you?

Does it feel like there is a conflict, between your lives and your desire to pray?

On Sunday 23rd of October 1642, at Edgehill in Warwickshire, England, one of the first battles of the English Civil war was waged. The Royalist infantry was led by Baron Astley of Reading.

Immediately before the battle he prayed, and his prayer was recorded by his biographer, thus: ‘[He] made a most excellent, pious, short and soldierly prayer: for he lifted up his hands and eyes to heaven, saying “O, Lord! Thou knowest how busy I must be this day: If I forget thee, do not thou forget me.” And with that he rose up crying out, “March on boys!”’

Do you ever pray like this? Does your prayer and your life feel like this sometimes?

Perhaps we succeed at carving out time for prayer. We may have a regular discipline. We find the time – we settle down for our special time with God, yet when we do things aren’t always easy . . .

The Church of St Mary the Virgin in Gisburn – one of the churches I looked after in England – has seen a lot of history. It stands at the centre of the village on an ancient cross roads. (Well not exactly, the two routes were slightly offset, but both passed through the small village) Built long ago – we weren’t sure when, but there had been a Vicar there in 1124 – its solid oak doors, and castellated ridges and tower suggested it had been built not least as a place of defence. It was a place everyone would use, for many different activities. It had housed the village fire wagon, markets in older days, and more.

On the night of 16th August 1648, it had stabled the horses of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces as he made his way to fight the Royalists at the battle of Preston, a little further down the Ribble Valley, and a little later in the same Civil War.

It was said that a peculiar notch on one of the churches pillars was the result of someone letting off a musket in the building . . .

Perhaps Space for God is as much about a place as carving out time? But a space with whinnying war horses and guns going off?

The other church in the team had been built in the early years of the 20th Century. It has never seen such profane use. There were other places in the village which might be used for such things. This was ‘a space for God!’. Set off to one side of the village, church was for Sundays, and funerals and weddings, the God space.

Do you know such spaces?

How does the description of each church match your idea of prayer? A place of refuge and defence? A place of  metaphorical whinnying horses and gunfire? A place set apart from the rest of life?

How does each speak to your life? To your faith? What else do they suggest?

———

Think again about that question of the disciples to Jesus. Where are you living? And his response, ‘Come and see’. His command to seek and enter the Kingdom . . .

As we considered a few weeks ago as we heard the account of Jesus calling the fishermen, God is on the move. Yet we often try and keep him in one place. We carefully make a time . . . but its rather an odd idea, isn’t it? After all if you really want to see someone, say the doctor, don’t you ask them when they can see you?  Do you suggest to your doctor that you’ve managed to carve out 20 minutes, and will be in a certain place at a certain time, and expect her to turn up?

Or we make a special place, with just the right chair and candles . . . Yet, God had dwelt in a tent in the desert. When He moved, the Israelites just had to ‘up sticks’ and follow. But then things settled down. Life and faith in the promised land became domesticated, and perhaps so did their view of God?

David sought to build a space for God, a space in which God lived, a space where he xcould be sure God would turn up. In a sense it is rather a charming idea – like a little child inviting its parents to live in the house he has built for them under the kitchen table . . . God asks David, ‘You are going to make a house for me?’ ‘Are you sure we have this the right way around?’

Do we??

‘God is always there for me. He walks alongside me through my life’

‘I walk with God . . .’

Which of these phrases comes closest to describing how you relate to God? The content of your prayers?

The Carmelite nun, Ruth Burrows speaks of entering into relationship with God, entering His Kingdom in a challenging parable which I paraphrase here . . .

The Kingdom of God is as if a great king had set an examination for three of his subjects. He told them that it was impossible, and that they would be unable to answer the questions put to them, but that his Son would appear at some point by the city gate and instruct them.

The first subject thought this faintly ridiculous. If the king’s Son knew the answers, then he was sure he would also, and anyway there was so much to be doing.  Roll on exam day!

The second subject had a slight sense of unease and would turn up at the gate from time to time, but never found the Son there when he went. The third subject pitched his tent by the city gate. In fair weather and foul to the bemusement and occasional ridicule of passers by, he waited on The Son . . . He passed the exam.

Remember the gospel from a few weeks ago? The one about following Jesus. Jesus said ‘Follow me!’ and they just went. Dropped their nets – never a ‘by your leave’ – and if we  stayed by the shore, they’d disappear from our sight. Gone to be with Jesus . . .

The disciples put me in mind of a little known character in the Scriptures. Enoch. We know  little about him, although writings bearing his name were very important to the first Christians. All we know of him from Scripture is that  – ‘he walked with God, and was not . . .’

Follow Jesus. But where? Find the space for God? But where? Perhaps we have to follow Jesus to find the answers? But it may not be easy . . .

Knowing and Knowing – Sermon for Lent 1

Sermon for Lent 1

Evensong – Sunday 21st February 2021

Year B

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Romans 5:12-19

“Have you not discriminated among yourselves, and become judges with wicked thoughts?”

James 2:4

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

Why? Why does eating of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil lead to death?

Good and Evil . . . can We judge? Can we tell the difference between the weeds and the wheat?

Following the end of the Second World War, at the Nuremburg trials, the triumphant Allied forces showed a 6 hour long movie. Entitled, “The Nazi Plan”, it carefully spliced together film to show the horrors of Nazism. It was an act of judgement, of making the line between Good and Evil very clear. The official story of the war was simply that Good had triumphed over Evil. The judgement of History was clear. There must be no doubt about who the wicked people were.

Yet there was a problem with such a simplification. Rather than viewing from a great height – in ‘the great scheme of things’ – viewed up close the picture was not at all clear. As many many allied troops knew, they too had committed and been involved in atrocities. Those stories were not told. Not all of humanity was to be on trial at Nuremburg, although perhaps it should have been

Following the war in Germany, the shame of what had happened meant that the war was not spoken of, until a generation arose who did not have first hand experience of the war. They were angry when they discovered the truth. It was their parents who had been complicit – so in the 1970’s there was an attempt to wipe the slate clean. Most famous were the actions of the Bader Meinhof gang, yet they too came to a terrible realization. In condemning Nazism they had murdered people. As one former member said – “we too had become fascists . . .”

And despite many many attempts down through the years to produce Purity, the old problem remains. We have eaten from the tree and Know Good and Evil, but there is ‘knowing’ and ‘knowing’

We can ‘know about’. Or we can Know. And the difference is critical here, most particularly with respect to other human beings, but also the Creation itself.

To know about requires separation from – to know as it were from a distance. But to Know is to be woven into. “Adam knew his wife Eve and she conceived and bore a son”. Two lives become one, not in confusion but in Union. These are different Knowings.

To ‘Know’ Good and Evil is the human condition. Eating the apple, we take it into ourself. Yet, we are deceived. Our problem is that we confuse Knowing with knowing about . . . We set up an supposed objective distance from this or that person or act and declare them to be Good, or Evil. A curiously objective distance we even apply to ourselves . . . declaring ourselves to be Good . . . as opposed to that person or those people.

And it is that setting apart that is the root of the problem. By our distancing we think we can see properly. By judging we separate ourselves from others and indeed the world around us.

Jesus’ problem as he encountered people was with those who thought they were Good compared with others. We categorise them as ‘religious’ people, yet all people in those days were religious – it is a wrong distinction.

As some folk try to purify the world of religion, with all its attendant problems, they merely set up other versions of the same things, with sure dogmas of who is in the right and who is in the wrong. It wasn’t the Pharisees and Saducees who were entering the Kingdom ahead of the tax collectors and prostitutes, it was the other way round, and the first person to enter the fullness of the Kingdom was a thief . . . which brings us to the Cross of Christ.

To Judge is to undo the work of Jesus upon the Cross in making the two one. In his flesh uniting God and Human beings. He used the consequences of our alienation to undo the transgression of Adam, the sin of standing apart, from himself. He became a stranger even to himself. He is ashamed of his nakedness, his own being.

Now he has to cover himself. Separating himself from himself, he found himself separated from the woman – flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones. He no longer recognizes himself in his fellow human. The man and the woman hide from God, and become strangers to one another. The Good Creation becomes an enemy. Estrangement rules. And Estrangement is death.

Yet Death will not have The Last Word.

In the Resurrection of Jesus, God gifts eternal Life to humanity. Not how Paul speaks of humanity as a totality in his letter – from the one man all – how much more, from the one man all. For as in Adam, all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. Unless of course we don’t count ourselves as Christ himself did, amongst the transgressors. Amongst those people. Upon the Cross, Jesus hangs between two thieves . . .

We ate from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, thinking we might thereby stand as judge and jury – instead of which we found we took it into ourself – we were woven into Good and Evil.

Yet God in Christ wove himself into humanity – that we might Know not good and evil, but The Good, The Good One, and so share not in knowing about, but Knowing God

As Jesus Says. –‘Now this is eternal Life, that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Not know about, but Know.

Our healing from the wound of the knowledge of Good and Evil is to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Life, the body and blood of Christ and thus Know Him. That is Life

Amen

Following Jesus – Finding the Space for God

Where creature stops, God begins to be. Now all God wants of you is for you to go out of yourself in the way of creatureliness and let God be within you. The least creaturely image that takes shape in you is as big as God. How is that? It deprives you of the whole of God. As soon as this image comes in, God has to leave with all his Godhead. But when the image goes out, God comes in. God desires you to go out of yourself (as creature) as much as if all his blessedness depended on it. My dear friend, what harm can it do you to do God the favour of letting Him be God in you? Go right out of yourself for God’s sake, and God will go right out of Himself for your sake! When these two have gone, what is left is one and simple.

Master Echkart

Introduction

My hope is that something in our Lent Study will open a door for you; or rather that Jesus will open a door for you, and invite you to explore what lies within.

You may well find it helpful to keep a notebook and pen handy. If you are not used to journalling, perhaps now might be a time to start. In any case, each session leaflet has some spare paper for notes . . . but don’t allow this to be ‘just another Lent course’. Not because in one sense it is ‘just another lent course’, but because every word from God is that which we live by, and is an invitation to walk further into Life. We never come to the end of it  . . .

A word on this study material

‘Study’ Sounds a bit heavy, no?

‘Study’ originally meant to have an affectionate attention towards. In this old sense it is different from what we might call ‘scientific’, or ‘objective’ study. True study risks losing itself in its subject for the sake of Love, for the sake of Knowing the Truth which might therefore set us free.

This material can be used in a group, but should first be used alone. The questions are given to lead us into silence and waiting on God and your own truth and within the confines of a set time this isn’t possible.

The material isn’t given as it were to be ‘kicked around’ in conversation and ‘many words’ [Matthew 6:6,8].  Often study, even amongst Christians becomes ‘analysis’ – literally taking apart.

But we are in the business of Life, and Life will not allow herself to be ‘judged’ in such a way.

When we analyse, we are rather like a child who having seen a toy taken apart to find how it works, decides to apply the same idea to the family cat! (We murder to dissect – as Wordsworth said of the spirit of analysis)

Imagine this Life, this Truth as something delicate, humble, not wishing to parade herself and not given to ‘show herself off for our inspection and judgement’ [Matthew 16:4, John 7:1-10].

It will come to you in its own time if you are patient and desire it. If however we just want answers to our questions, then it will not show itself. (Perhaps the book of Job is in part a warning about ‘easy answers’?). There is a Knowing, the goal of our Christian Life, which does not know, and is quite content.

If you are part of a group make sure you leave plenty of time in the week to sit with the material.

It may be that you find it difficult to share some of the things you discover. Seek out someone who can listen to you if that is the case.

Jesus says ‘when two or three gather in my name, there I am in their midst’, not ‘when twenty or thirty . . .’ Intimacy with one another is where we find Jesus amongst us . . . Beyond a certain number that intimacy becomes impossible. Indeed Jesus himself had an inner circle of three disciples with whom he shared the most intimate things, and warned against great disclosures to those whom we do not know well.

A word on ‘not carrying on’

There may be moments when you want to stop. Do.

Although these studies have a direction and I hope will help us deeper into the life that is offered to us in Jesus, it may be that God has another agenda with you at this time. If a question sends you on a different journey, then take time to pursue that.

This study is about the beginning and the end, but it is not the beginning and the end.

A word on Silence.

‘to have the wellspring of silence inhabit us is the source of true happiness’ Maggie Ross (Anglican Solitary)

“Stay in your room, in the silence of your heart, and it will teach you everything” Saying of the Desert Fathers

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” 

Blaise Pascal

Silence is the wellspring of Life. Yet in our mechanical age Silence is so very hard to find. Silence can seem strange, threatening even. Which means we can always find reasons not to avoid her. God is Good. If our desire is for Him, then there is nothing to fear from any thought that arises within us.

Perhaps further questions. Challenges maybe. Things we wish we hadn’t noticed. Trust God in silence. Even, perhaps especially it is the difficult things which are shown us for his good purposes with us. (Luke 5:31) Eternal Life springs up, when we are silent.

On the use of scripture.

Try as we might, we world we inhabit trains us in reading scripture off the surface, literally. Some folk demand that the truth of scripture is the literal truth, others who may be uncomfortable with this, find difficulty with scripture precisely because they read it literally.

Throughout this study scriptures will be found, but in an older way. Indirectly. If we will allow, Scripture is not given as an answer book to our questions; rather, as God appears to Job, Scripture questions us.

Remember what we said about Study and Love? Love is rich beyond imagining, and it is two way. Scripture can speak to us in ways we never imagined, as long as we allow it. Like the one who speaks through it, it is also gentle and humble of heart, not displaying itself . . .

Finally, just to say that both Lisa and myself are available for conversation throughout. Sunday evenings in Lent – 3rd Sundays aside – will be given over for those who are seeking help with the material.

But enough. It is time to open the door . . .

PART 1 –Hide and Seek

“Seek God’s Kingdom . . .”

Jesus

We shall not cease from exploration

 And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started 

And know the place for the first time.”

T.S. Elliott – Little Gidding

“Shortly after that, they looked into a room that was quite empty except for one big wardrobe; the sort that has a looking-glass in the door. There was nothing else in the room at all except a dead blue bottle on the window sill”

C.S. Lewis, The lion, the witch and the wardrobe

Long ago, do you remember? When you were a child? Playing ‘Hide and Seek’? This may evoke many memories.

 For myself, several are centered around my Grandfather’s farm in what was then North West Lancashire. In particular the large old farmhouse was a scene of much play with my brothers and cousins, when we weren’t being rebuked and chased outside ‘on such a lovely day!’.

The farmhouse, Bolton Manor, was splendid as its name suggests. Downstairs the entrance was though a narrow corridor into a spacious kitchen. The entrance to the pantry was on the left down some steps into the cool earth, and was surrounded by slate tables for the preparation of meats etc. (I can smell it to this day)

On through the kitchen, one stepped into a huge ‘living room’, the scene of many a New Year’s party, and full of furniture behind which one might hide. A particularly fine old oak Grandfather Clock stood in one corner. The door from that room led out to the right into a hallway, with other rooms leading off, and an oak paneled stairway above which loomed a brooding gilt framed copy of Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’.

It was up those stairs that so often we’d go to hide, in one of the many bedrooms or side rooms. The whole upper floor seemed to be pervaded by the musty smell of old horse tack, the days of working horses even then more than a generation in the past.

You could find many places to hide away in these rooms, some suffering from an air of neglect . . .

Take a moment to pause . . . enter your own childhood memories. Did you know such ‘Hide and Seek’, and perhaps a neglected room? What was the feel of that room?

C.S. Lewis opens a door to the hidden world of Narnia. A door through a wardrobe in a remote room in a large house. It is the children who find it, the adults long having abandoned it as the ‘real world’ demands crowd out time and space for anything else. Time and space for journey and adventure, for hiding and seeking.

When did you last give time to journey and adventure?

Do those words in anyway reseonate with your faith?

Perhaps in Lent, if we are not too ‘serious’, too ‘grown up’, we might give some time and space to such a diversion? After all, we are given permission to do something different at this season in the Church calendar.

A suggestion

Whether or not we have such memories of large houses to play in in our childhood, all of us have such a door close to home. As we take time in study this Lent, perhaps we might seek out the room, and find the door, and enter into . . .  well where? Lewis was by his own description, a Christian Platonist [1]. That is that ‘the real world’ partially obscures ‘The Real World’. Not that they are utterly different, but that as we allow our focus to lengthen, we might ‘gaze through’ the things that are seen. As St Paul puts it, ‘we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are passing away, but the things that are unseen are eternal’ 2 Cor 4:18 [2].

Put another way, For Lewis, Narnia is The Real World. A world everywhere present and at the same time, hidden away from the casual gaze of an adult or indeed a child who doesn’t pause to wonder . . .

The title of this study may seem a little odd. As if it is two different studies: one on ‘Following Jesus’; the other on “Finding the space for God”.

Take a moment to pause . . . What does each title suggest to you? What questions?

Each of the gospels in different ways begins with disciples following Jesus. In Matthew, Mark and Luke this following follows a direct command of Jesus to the fishermen by Galillee. In John it is the curiosity of the disciples who evoke Jesus’ invitation.

Furthermore, in Matthew and Luke there is a suggestive echo of that game of hide and seek. Jesus says ‘Ask, and it will be given you, seek and you shall find, knock and it will be opened to you’

Take a moment to pause . . . Ask for what? Seek? For what? What will be opened if I knock?

No answer is provided, just questions . . . Rather like an old wardrobe in the corner of a neglected room, something addresses us, with questions. Questions are like the door in the back of the wardrobe, they allow us to enter into a wider space. Answers close the door, Questions invite us in

Perhaps before rushing to many words, we might go into our room and wait for something to suggest itself . . . Matthew 6:6


[1]
“It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?” Digory Kirke

The Last Battle, CS Lewis 

[2] See also Hebrews 11:3

Hide and Seek

“Following Jesus and Discovering the Space for God”.

Lent study 2021

Introduction and Part 1

Where creature stops, God begins to be. Now all God wants of you is for you to go out of yourself in the way of creatureliness and let God be within you. The least creaturely image that takes shape in you is as big as God. How is that? It deprives you of the whole of God. As soon as this image comes in, God has to leave with all his Godhead. But when the image goes out, God comes in. God desires you to go out of yourself (as creature) as much as if all his blessedness depended on it. My dear friend, what harm can it do you to do God the favour of letting Him be God in you? Go right out of yourself for God’s sake, and God will go right out of Himself for your sake! When these two have gone, what is left is one and simple.

Master Echkart

Introduction

My hope is that something in our Lent Study will open a door for you; or rather that Jesus will open a door for you, and invite you to explore what lies within.

You may well find it helpful to keep a notebook and pen handy. If you are not used to journaling, perhaps now might be a time to start. In any case, each session leaflet has some spare paper for notes . . . but don’t allow this to be ‘just another Lent course’. Not because in one sense it is ‘just another lent course’, but because every word from God is that which we live by, and is an invitation to walk further into Life. We never come to the end of it  . . .

A word on this study material

‘Study’ Sounds a bit heavy, no?

‘Study’ originally meant to have an affectionate attention towards. In this old sense it is different from what we might call ‘scientific’, or ‘objective’ study. True study risks losing itself in its subject for the sake of Love, for the sake of Knowing the Truth which might therefore set us free.

This material can be used in a group, but should first be used alone. The questions are given to lead us into silence and waiting on God and your own truth and within the confines of a set time this isn’t possible.

The material isn’t given as it were to be ‘kicked around’ in conversation and ‘many words’ [Matthew 6:6,8].  Often study, even amongst Christians becomes ‘analysis’ – literally taking apart.

But we are in the business of Life, and Life will not allow herself to be ‘judged’ in such a way.

When we analyse, we are rather like a child who having seen a toy taken apart to find how it works, decides to apply the same idea to the family cat! (We murder to dissect – as Wordsworth said of the spirit of analysis)

Imagine this Life, this Truth as something delicate, humble, not wishing to parade herself and not given to ‘show herself off for our inspection and judgement’ [Matthew 16:4, John 7:1-10].

It will come to you in its own time if you are patient and desire it. If however we just want answers to our questions, then it will not show itself. (Perhaps the book of Job is in part a warning about ‘easy answers’?). There is a Knowing, the goal of our Christian Life, which does not know, and is quite content.

If you are part of a group make sure you leave plenty of time in the week to sit with the material.

It may be that you find it difficult to share some of the things you discover. Seek out someone who can listen to you if that is the case.

Jesus says ‘when two or three gather in my name, there I am in their midst’, not ‘when twenty or thirty . . .’ Intimacy with one another is where we find Jesus amongst us . . . Beyond a certain number that intimacy becomes impossible. Indeed Jesus himself had an inner circle of three disciples with whom he shared the most intimate things, and warned against great disclosures to those whom we do not know well.

A word on ‘not carrying on’

There may be moments when you want to stop. Do.

Although these studies have a direction and I hope will help us deeper into the life that is offered to us in Jesus, it may be that God has another agenda with you at this time. If a question sends you on a different journey, then take time to pursue that.

This study is about the beginning and the end, but it is not the beginning and the end.

A word on Silence.

‘to have the wellspring of silence inhabit us is the source of true happiness’ Maggie Ross (Anglican Solitary)

“Stay in your room, in the silence of your heart, and it will teach you everything” Saying of the Desert Fathers

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” 

Blaise Pascal

Silence is the wellspring of Life. Yet in our mechanical age Silence is so very hard to find. Silence can seem strange, threatening even. Which means we can always find reasons not to avoid her. God is Good. If our desire is for Him, then there is nothing to fear from any thought that arises within us.

Perhaps further questions. Challenges maybe. Things we wish we hadn’t noticed. Trust God in silence. Even, perhaps especially it is the difficult things which are shown us for his good purposes with us. (Luke 5:31) Eternal Life springs up, when we are silent.

On the use of scripture.

Try as we might, we world we inhabit trains us in reading scripture off the surface, literally. Some folk demand that the truth of scripture is the literal truth, others who may be uncomfortable with this, find difficulty with scripture precisely because they read it literally.

Throughout this study scriptures will be found, but in an older way. Indirectly. If we will allow, Scripture is not given as an answer book to our questions; rather, as God appears to Job, Scripture questions us.

Remember what we said about Study and Love? Love is rich beyond imagining, and it is two way. Scripture can speak to us in ways we never imagined, as long as we allow it. Like the one who speaks through it, it is also gentle and humble of heart, not displaying itself . . .

Finally, just to say that both Lisa and myself are available for conversation throughout. Sunday evenings in Lent – 3rd Sundays aside – will be given over for those who are seeking help with the material.

But enough. It is time to open the door . . .

Part 1. “Hide and Seek

“Seek God’s Kingdom . . .”

Jesus

We shall not cease from exploration

 And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started 

And know the place for the first time.”

T.S. Elliott – Little Gidding

“Shortly after that, they looked into a room that was quite empty except for one big wardrobe; the sort that has a looking-glass in the door. There was nothing else in the room at all except a dead blue bottle on the window sill”

C.S. Lewis, The lion, the witch and the wardrobe

Long ago, do you remember? When you were a child? Playing ‘Hide and Seek’? This may evoke many memories.

 For myself, several are centered around my Grandfather’s farm in what was then North West Lancashire. In particular the large old farmhouse was a scene of much play with my brothers and cousins, when we weren’t being rebuked and chased outside ‘on such a lovely day!’.

The farmhouse, Bolton Manor, was splendid as its name suggests. Downstairs the entrance was though a narrow corridor into a spacious kitchen. The entrance to the pantry was on the left down some steps into the cool earth, and was surrounded by slate tables for the preparation of meats etc. (I can smell it to this day)

On through the kitchen, one stepped into a huge ‘living room’, the scene of many a New Year’s party, and full of furniture behind which one might hide. A particularly fine old oak Grandfather Clock stood in one corner. The door from that room led out to the right into a hallway, with other rooms leading off, and an oak paneled stairway above which loomed a brooding gilt framed copy of Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’.

It was up those stairs that so often we’d go to hide, in one of the many bedrooms or side rooms. The whole upper floor seemed to be pervaded by the musty smell of old horse tack, the days of working horses even then more than a generation in the past.

You could find many places to hide away in these rooms, some suffering from an air of neglect . . .

Take a moment to pause . . . enter your own childhood memories. Did you know such ‘Hide and Seek’, and perhaps a neglected room? What was the feel of that room?

C.S. Lewis opens a door to the hidden world of Narnia. A door through a wardrobe in a remote room in a large house. It is the children who find it, the adults long having abandoned it as the ‘real world’ demands crowd out time and space for anything else. Time and space for journey and adventure, for hiding and seeking.

When did you last give time to journey and adventure?

Do those words in anyway reseonate with your faith?

Perhaps in Lent, if we are not too ‘serious’, too ‘grown up’, we might give some time and space to such a diversion? After all, we are given permission to do something different at this season in the Church calendar.

A suggestion

Whether or not we have such memories of large houses to play in in our childhood, all of us have such a door close to home. As we take time in study this Lent, perhaps we might seek out the room, and find the door, and enter into . . .  well where? Lewis was by his own description, a Christian Platonist [1]. That is that ‘the real world’ partially obscures ‘The Real World’. Not that they are utterly different, but that as we allow our focus to lengthen, we might ‘gaze through’ the things that are seen. As St Paul puts it, ‘we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are passing away, but the things that are unseen are eternal’ 2 Cor 4:18 [2].

Put another way, For Lewis, Narnia is The Real World. A world everywhere present and at the same time, hidden away from the casual gaze of an adult or indeed a child who doesn’t pause to wonder . . .

The title of this study may seem a little odd. As if it is two different studies: one on ‘Following Jesus’; the other on “Finding the space for God”.

Take a moment to pause . . . What does each title suggest to you? What questions?

Each of the gospels in different ways begins with disciples following Jesus. In Matthew, Mark and Luke this following follows a direct command of Jesus to the fishermen by Galillee. In John it is the curiosity of the disciples who evoke Jesus’ invitation.

Furthermore, in Matthew and Luke there is a suggestive echo of that game of hide and seek. Jesus says ‘Ask, and it will be given you, seek and you shall find, knock and it will be opened to you’

Take a moment to pause . . . Ask for what? Seek? For what? What will be opened if I knock?

No answer is provided, just questions . . . Rather like an old wardrobe in the corner of a neglected room, something addresses us, with questions. Questions are like the door in the back of the wardrobe, they allow us to enter into a wider space. Answers close the door, Questions invite us in

Perhaps before rushing to many words, we might go into our room and wait for something to suggest itself . . . Matthew 6:6


[1]
“It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?” Digory Kirke

The Last Battle, CS Lewis 

[2] See also Hebrews 11:3

Following Jesus – Finding the Space for God

Preface and Invitation

The seed idea for this came about several months ago in conversation about ‘Space for God’. Since then, in the midst of so much, and with so much in the midst of me, it has proven to be one of those ideas which has born much fruit, not least in my own walk with Jesus.

As I’ve been preparing, words from a John Bell hymn go round and round in my head. Will you come and follow me?

Will you go where you don’t know, and never be the same?

An invitation from Jesus?

Perhaps The invitation from Jesus 

Perhaps it has been the last year which in so many ways has thrown the world into radical uncertainty, as foundations were tested and many have failed. Perhaps it has been the unknowns my family has faced in many ways. Yet it is in this moment, when things fall apart, dimly glimpsed, light comes through the cracks.

In this moment the gentle light of an invitation pierces the wall of noise and confusion, of fear and uncertainty. In this moment the sound of a silent voice breaks the glare of a million screens with their incessant demands –  ‘Look Here!’ ‘Look There! ‘This is what you need to pay attention to  . . .’  –  that sound of sheer silence – ‘Follow me, where you do not know, and never be the same’

Will we go where we don’t know? In the midst of so much ‘uncertainty’ this perhaps sounds like an invitation to ‘the last journey we want to make’; or perhaps it’s an invitation to discover something in the last place we’d think of looking . . . In a sense it is both

And never be the same? We look outwards towards what we call ‘the world’ and see so much that needs changing, and of course so much in so many ways is changing. Some people have called this age that of The Great Acceleration

All of this reminds me of the hobbits in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. They leave a place they know so well. A place marked above all by comfort and familiarity, a place they know and love. They embark on a journey, they know not where, and upon their return to The Shire, they are so changed that they are almost unrecognisable.

I wonder. If they had known what lay ahead of them, would they have ever set out? The Shire. Comfortable and Familiar. Change . . . hmmmm . . . Yet it is precisely unsettling stories from around the edge of their idyllic world which summon them forth on the journey. The world is not as they understand it to be.

Where are we in our journey of faith? Are we surrounded by the comfortable and familiar? Or perhaps do we look around in anxiety? ‘Fewer people these days . . .’ – ‘things don’t seem the same’ Jesus says ‘Follow me’, but do we anxiously cling to the known?

Jesus walks on. Do we let go and go with him?

We love to hear the words ‘God is with us!’, and ‘The Lord is Here!’, yet the God we meet in Jesus is perhaps less than comfortable? He calls us away from the familiar place to . . . Where? “Follow me!”, but where?

Vaya con Dios – ‘Go with God!’ is a Spanish blessing . . . and an invitation. There is perhaps a whole world of difference between ‘Jesus walks with me’, and ‘I walk with Jesus’

As I’ve pondered the material emerging in front of me, I’ve noticed more than once that phrases can have subtly different meanings. ‘Will you go where you don’t know?’ This might suggest ‘an invitation to an unknown place’, or it might further suggest a place where we find we don’t have the answers.

Life can present us with this, and it’s not a place in which we feel comfortable. Perhaps especially as Christians, ‘not having the answer’ can be an uncomfortable place, yet is our Christian life about having the security of answers?

We like answers. Having ‘The Answers’ keeps us secure, but like hobbits, if we step out on a journey beyond the borders of the Shire, beyond the borders of the familiar, beyond the borders of our own understanding . . . there are perhaps more questions than answers, many more. And perhaps also a sense that it is not our questions of God and the World that are remotely as significant as some other questions.

A friend once went to live as a hermit high in the French Alps. After a while the solitude and quiet and boredom got to him. He had expected a rich spiritual time with God, and cried out into the void ‘Who are you?’ only to hear the question echo back to him, ‘Who are YOU?’

Who Are you?

You might like to sit with that question in Silence

Silence has a special role to play in our lives. Without it words would be just a meaningless string of noise. Silence, space between words brings them to life. Thinking about this for a moment suggests ‘God’ to me . . .

Without the Silence, nothing can be distinguished from anything else. In a world dominated by noise, and endless words do we find confusion, or the delightful order and harmony which sprung from the Silence of God?

So there is much silence, and perhaps this material might draw us deeper into silence. But what about groups? As you may be aware, I have struggled to communicate how this material might work with groups—which we tend to meet in for Lent  🙂

Journeying alone, together.

Jesus goes ahead of us, alone. He went on a journey at Passiontide, and upon his return his disciples had trouble recognizing him.

Lent is a season when in preparation for the Passion of Jesus we make a little space for God in the midst of our busy lives.

Often this has been through studies in groups. I wonder how many of these we might have participated in over the years. How many questions we might have answered together and how many words spoken? How were we changed? How did our groups change?

Not long after I arrived here, someone said to me, ‘oh, we don’t talk about ‘that’ here’. ‘That’ was an issue which has proved to be divisive in the wider Church. 

Perhaps what it has done for the wider church has revealed that our sense of unity was mere words. But is there a different Unity which is not frightened by disagreement, which does not need the security of ‘being right’

Difference and Uniqueness . . .

From time to time I’ve found myself in situations in the church where those who desire unity will lament, ‘there is more that unites us than divides us’ Yet, when asked to say what it is that unites us, often little if nothing of substance seems to emerge.

Making the journey, following Jesus, we might discover how vast is that which unites us, and how little which divides us. We are far more alike than we tend to think in a world which values diversity. We have a tendency to confuse ‘Difference’ and ‘Uniqueness’. We are at the same time each utterly unique, yet also the same . . .

Insofar as a group will assist in the study it is largely in sharing silence, and yet also having the gentle courage to share from what arises within us. Not ‘what we think about the material. But what thoughts arise . . .

We think ‘about’ and talk ‘about’ a lot. But this is all ‘about’, it is indirect. Do we seek something which comes directly towards us out of the depths of Being?

 ‘Deep cries to Deep’ says the Psalmist

Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?

I haven’t set out where this course leads, not out of a sense of trying to be clever, but because in truth I don’t know. The material has sort of emerged over the past few months. Where it leads for each one of us, where it leads for us as a local body of Christ, I don’t know. All I know is that God is Good, and if we Follow Jesus we will find the Space for God

Eric

Out of Control – Sunday next before Lent. Year B 2021

Mark 9:2-9

Out of Control!

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds

‘I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it began to cry after him to return: but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on crying, ‘Life, life, eternal life’

So begins the journey of the Pilgrim towards the heavenly city in Pilgrims progress . . .

I couldn’t help but think of this when a news item caught my eye. The newly elected MP Ricardo Menéndez who had travelled to Mexico for distressing family reasons. The powerful ehoes of the Government ‘advice’ – “Do not leave New Zealand”, yet something called him forth, and he has won few plaudits for it.

Similarly of course Sarah has left these shores to step into the thick of the current situation in the UK. Flying into a locked down country – against the stronger advice of some of her own family and to the bemusement of some here.

Stay Safe. Stay where you know. Stay in your cave. Stay where it is safe. But what if you have no choice?

Recently I’ve been in conversation with folks who are exploring a vocation to the ordained ministry of the church, both here and in the UK. There is only one failsafe test of vocation, which is having no choice. This is why I think the old ways of laying hands on people and ordaining them was far better, there was never any danger of self deception, they had no choice.

I’ve been considering those who have no choice in the world at the time of this COVID pandemic. Those who have no choice to work from home. The only choice is to go out to work or to starve. A choice between life and death, which is on the one hand no choice at all, and on the other the only ‘choice’ that matters. Those who have no choice in the world . . . Blessed are you poor – you who have no choice. For yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.

In our society, perhaps like no other time before, the idea of having no choice is understood as a bad thing. For those who are sufficiently well off we like to decide what work we will do – of course we might dignify it with the label ‘vocation’ – but in reality it is almost always our choice. We like having choice. It is a sign that ‘we are in control’ of the circumstances of our lives. To step into, or to fly into danger , in to the place where you are out of control, is seen as a form of insanity. The only people who do this kind of thing are those who have no choice . . . Something Summons them forth. LIFE calls. Follow me!

And so Peter, James and John drop the security of the life they know, the life where they have half a clue what is going on, the life they have in some respects. They left their nets and followed Jesus. Because when you hear the call of Life, you have no choice.

And so you relinquish that which choice creates, the illusion of control.

When we relinquish control we step out from our safe space, the shore of the life we make for ourselves. It is a death. It reveals itself precisely in the way people leave security because they have no choice. But as Christians we believe that it is precisely when we die that we enter Life in its fulness . . .

Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves

Jesus took them. He leads them. They are not in control. They have passed through the death of relinquishing control, and enter Life.

Note Jesus words to the three disciples after this event. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

So, after he has risen for the dead, the disciples are to tell people . . . about this!

Years later as Peter writes to the infant churches, of all the things he wants them to remember of his life it is this incident.

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’  We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

After the Son of Man has risen from the dead, Peter is telling people about how Jesus has led them through death to life . . .

And it was a disorienting experience. They thought they knew what life and existence was all about, yet now . . .

Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

Peter is babbling. He is like a new born child – he has passed into the Kingdom of Heaven . . . This experience has undone him. Crossing the boundary does that. Your world falls apart. And one way or another our world will fall apart. Through the cracks in our lives of quiet desperation to use Thoreau’s helpful phrase, light breaks in.

It’s always light – as with Paul on the road to Damascus, so too with Peter, James and John. Light – Terrifying bright Light – we die and enter Life in response to a call which we have no choice but to follow

There is Life. And then there is Fear which keeps us from Life. We live in a world dominated by fear, and fear creates the urge to control. An urge which has no space for those with no control. Think about cars. About how they are bigger and stronger and safer . .  . but not for those who have no choice, the pedestrian.

The situation with regard to Covid only reveals this to a higher degree, the tightening grip of fear, fear which is the antithesis of life . . . And this happens in a myriad of ways. I saw something from the church officials suggesting that perhaps this was an opportunity to move to a new way of sharing the peace. Never mind that originally it was a kiss; handshakes and hugs are so yesterday in the ever so ‘Brave New World’, ushered in by those who are afraid. In which people get used to and then justify never hugging another person . . . This is not Life, it is a living death.

As our own beloved patron says, There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear: for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 1 Jn 4:18 Put another way, as I was sharing with our Wednesday congregation, when we fear we do not know what Love is. Rather our definition of love is one which works within closed in boundaries where we feel safe. Where we are in control. When we are in control, Love is our choice . . . when we enter the life of God, Love just Is. Perfect Love casts out fear. Perfect love doesn’t merely cross the boundary, it stops seeing it. It is Life – Life, Love drives out fear

But this requires a death – a coming to the end of our life, or perhaps better, the end of our self . . . the life where we think we are in charge and in control . . . Perhaps this is needed for the church as well. I know from personal experience about how the church has become about control, about ‘we know how things are and God has left us to get on with ‘it’, that old story about God leaving us to get on with it. ‘Never will I leave you – Behold I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.

Control has been given over to Jesus – Jesus takes them, Jesus leads them. And they discover Heaven on Earth, because they have given up on fear and control, they have entered Life on the Holy Mountain.

When we hear that voice calling us to Life, we must go and step through the fear barrier to be Life in the World. Our life is put in God’s hands, where it belongs for now it is not our Life but His.

Heaven on Earth . . . not pie in the sky by and by.

When you know the power of life, you step through the fear barriers. Hearing its call you can but drop your nets and follow . . .

Or stay by the lake shaking your head after those who have gone . . .

Amen

Compass stuck? Second Sunday before Lent, 2021

Isaiah 40:21-31

1 Cor 9:16-23

Mark 1:29-39

Audio Recording

What are you looking for? life or Life?

From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps reach out to grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. Acts 17:26-7

The North of England is a place of strange goings on and customs. From the obscure practices of hill farmers to old men in flat caps and whippet racing, there’s lots to confuse the merely curious.

On the outskirts of small towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire are huts, where for generations usually the male of the family in an effort to get a bit of piece has retreated to tend to his prize possessions – his racing pigeons. This is where ‘the little man’ lives his dreams, becoming the equivalent of sheiks and Rosthchilds with their thoroughbred horses.

Every few weeks a truck will collect baskets of pigeons and drive them to somewhere in Southern Europe from where they will be set free . . . and one morning the old man’s gaze will pass to the horizon where a dot becomes the prize pigeon, having flown almost unerringly home . . .

It’s thought this sense of direction is helped by magnetic particles in their beak . . . and humans are not dissimilar. We all have within us a homing instrument – the only problem we have is most people don’t know what it’s for . . .

Paul who has become all things to all people that he might by some mean save some preaches about this to those wise Athenians, saying, From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps reach out to grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

We were made to search for God. It is intrinsic to being human. As much as the pigeon, we are made to search for home. Our problem is that we don’t always realise that. We put this ‘homing instinct’ to different uses. We don’t know what it is . . .

Years ago, Sarah and I were out on the highest fells in my home, the English Lake District. It was mid-summer and the weather was, typically, cold and very wet. We’d spent the day crossing mighty Scafell with it’s rock gulleys, all ready to swallow the unwary, then onto the highest point in England, Scafell Pike. Sarah was tired and a little hypothermic, so we were making our way down the Corridor route towards Borrowdale, when we spotted two youngsters coming up the hill from the direction of Wasdale. Realising they were either foolhardy or lost, we waied for them to get to us. They were lost. They, like us were looking for Borrowdale but had descended 3000 feet into the wrong valley. After we’d ascertained that we asked to see there map so they could get safely down. ‘Map? Oh we haven’t got one, but we’ve got a compass . . .’ Proudly they brought out probably the most expensive compass I’ve ever seen, a wonderful sighting compass, extraordinarily accurate . . . but entirely useless without a map . . .

We put them on the Corridor path, told them to follow it until they reached a lake, then turn left until they reached the emergency stretcher box. Pause there and give thanks you haven’t need it, then turn right alongside the path following the outflow stream of the Lake until you come to the valley . . . Their faces which had been wracked with worry lightened and they set off, much faster than us, and we hoped not too fast . . .

We all have that compass. We are all equipped to find our way home. The problem is the compass only makes sense with a map. Someone who has made the journey, who knows the way.

The prophet Isaiah gives us the map –

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
   the Creator of the ends of the earth.

Has it not been told you from the beginning?
   Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
   and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
   and spreads them like a tent to live in; 
who brings princes to naught,
   and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. 

Wake up to where you are, and who is with you . . . And now, God himself has come to show you the way . . .

Jesus is on the move. He knows where he is going. As he goes like a compass swinging round in the presence of magnetic rock,  that homing instinct wakens in those he encounters. First Simon Peter, Andrew, and James and John . . . following their deep instinct, not knowing why. They have to go after him.

As he goes Jesus draws a crowd. Reality – Real Life – springs into existence around him. Like those iron filings in school science experiments, the world is transformed around him, pointing people towards him. Demons come out of people. Simon Peter’s mother in law is healed. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. Like a compass needle that is stuck, then freed, Her life is immediately begins to orient itself towards Jesus and those around him.

She rises from sleep to serve Jesus and his disciples. She has found her direction. In the presence of Jesus her homing instinct finds its True North. Jesus then takes his time in leisurely prayer, checking out his own orientation, his own homing instinct, his Love for the Father . . .

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.

Yet Simon and his companions hunted for him. How could they do otherwise? In Him they’ve found life, as Jesus has to be with the Father in prayer, so they have to be with Jesus.

When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ Of course – Everyone is created to search for God, and God has shown up.

Jesus answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

 And the disciples go after him.

‘Everyone is searching for you’ We all have that compass needle. We are created to Know God – intimately. To find our home in him. But our needles get stuck. We lose contact. That Orienting instinct sets out to try and find home, but instead settles for a career, or the right education for our children, or good health, or a million and one things. That essential part of us, the spirit which is for God, gets bound up with the world, our ‘fixations’ – those things we can’t help but think about, our sins. Literally Sin means ‘missing the mark’ That compass which is given us that we might seek after God and find Him settles on something else. Something which we think is more real. We’re created for the Life which comes from God – which we call ‘Eternal’ Life – Life which isn’t bound by time and place – but we settle down, our homing compasses stuck in the wrong direction

It is only when we encounter The Real One, The Human being, Jesus that that needle is set free.

The Apostle Paul had been very sure of what life was, what religion was. He’d ascended the ranks. He was a Pharisee of the pharisee, a Hebrew of the Hebrews. His worldly religious credentials were right up there with Bishops and Archbishops . . . His needle was stuck. Until he encounters Jesus. He’d set his heart on the wrong things, but in the presence of Jesus he is unstuck, he is undone. Serious work needs to take place in Paul. Unlike Simon Peter’s mother in law, he is very very stuck. Some people are far more stuck than others. Their hearts almost set in concrete, almost . . . but never entirely. Paul needs to be freed and this takes time. He is blinded by the presence of Jesus, it will take time for him to be reset.

But set free, all that ‘religious energy’ finds it’s true home. He loses himself. He is free and thus free to become the servant of all – I am free with respect to all, I have used my freedom to make myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Paul is Free and now he lives for Jesus, his orienting beacon in whom he has found his true home. Are we similarly free? Or are our hearts and minds set on other things? What are we looking for. Are we content with life, or in the presence of Jesus have we awoken to Life and set out on the journey to where we don’t know, to never be the same, to come Home.

May we like Paul  find ourselves freed from the world’s illusions. May our homing instinct awaken to its true North, God in our midst

Amen

Back to Basics – Hearing Jesus

Sermon for the fourth Sunday after The Epiphany

Year B, 2021

Mark 1:21-28

‘Let those with ears to hear, hear!’ Matthew 13:9

Well, it’s still January. Just. Did the turn of a the year fill you with a resolution to change something about your life? New Year, New start?

For me, it was a decision to learn how to play the guitar. This may surprise some of you. For the discerning amongst you, it may well be met with the reply, ‘and not before time’.

I remember years ago taking a baptism service back in England. It was in the afternoon and my organist wasn’t available, so we sang songs accompanied by yours truly.

Following the service a fairly elderly man as he came to shake my hand said, ‘you clearly don’t know how to play a guitar’. He was of course right. I’d been found out.

I am in truth an occasionally enthusiastic self taught strummer of a guitar, and any judge would find me guilty of a duty of lack of care and abuse of a fine instrument.

Self taught, making it up as I went along, I had picked up all sorts of bad habits, and my guitar playing looked little like the real thing. So this year I took the decision to go back to basics. I’ve enrolled on a course starting from the beginning, stripping our some bad habits and hopefully make a little progress . . . To date, all I seem to have for my efforts are sore fingertips!

Stripping back to the basics.

It’s when we strip back to the essentials that we discover the true nature of our existence. Buried deep under the accretions and the years of bad habits and wrong turnings we touch on something we’d lost touch with, Life itself.

Often this stripping back happens against any will. We thought life was fine, then something terrible happens. As folk have said to me so many times, it really showed me what was important . . . We are found out. We realise we don’t know what we thought we knew. The life we’d been living was not life at all.

We realise that despite everything we thought we knew, in so many ways we are powerless. We don’t have what it takes. We are found out. Exposed before God – we are naked and ashamed . . . and all too often we pile up all those things that keep us from that life encounter. The place is too painful, too boring, too awkward, and way too uncomfortable. Too stripped back, too basic . . . well, this is year B. The Gospel for this year is Mark and Mark has no time for comfort.

His is the Back to basics gospel. There’s no fancy accretions. It is utterly unpretentious, and its strange kindness is as blunt as that man who pointed out the truth about my guitar playing all those years ago. (This was the way amongst those with whom I grew up . . .)

Mark’s Good News of Jesus Christ is angular – it has sharp corners and edges. We keep getting jolted by it. It’s repeated word is ‘suddenly’. If we are hearing the words well then they jar. You think you know where it’s going, then ‘suddenly . . .’. ‘Suddenly’ is Mark’s version of Behold! Wake up! Something is going on. Mark won’t even smooth things out for us with a post resurrection sighting of Jesus. The disciples are told that he’s gone ahead of them, we have to follow, to Galilee . . . which is where we begin. Jesus has returned.

Jesus is passing by the sea of Galilee and seeing Peter and Andrew commands them, “Follow me!” And Suddenly, Immediately, they dropped their nets and followed him . . . our gaze follows them. Further along the lake He sees James and Andrew, the sons of Zebedee, hard at work fishing. Immediately on seeing them he calls them and they too drop everything and follow him . . .

Where does our gaze go? Are we left asking about Zebedee and the hired men? Has Mark’s gospel left our pretentions to be followers of Jesus on the rocky shore of Galilee? Hey Jesus, we shout after his back, what about them . . . and he continues to move onwards . . . what about me? Where are you going? Come back! . . .

Jesus seems unconcerned. He’s on the move. We can stay put or we can follow him, but there’s not even the time to choose, for he’s not hanging around . . .

We respond or we allow the accretions to gather once more . . . “But where is he going?” Questions, questions . . . hesitations, waiting, and slowly like the bad habits on my guitar playing, our faith settles down comfortably . . . We come up with lots of answers which secure us in our existence. Like the John Bell hymn, having asked ‘will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?’, we follow up with lots of answers not to where Jesus is going – but where he has gone, answers that leave us where we are . . .

Jesus is not hanging around and as he goes on his way everything he does wakens people in astonishment. What Jesus does is calls people from the sleep of death, to Life, but as the parable of the sower teaches, we can awake and then go back to the sleep of death. Reality breaks in, and we pull the covers back over our heads for we have no root. The desire for Life doesn’t go deep enough.

I may or may not improve at the guitar, it depends if the root goes deep enough, if I am thirsty enough, if I want it enough . . . I may or may not improve at the guitar if I don’t allow many other things to get in the way . . . Far more important though , I might find out where Jesus is going if I go with him to where I don’t know . . . Seek, Jesus says, and you will find . . . but am I thirsty for what he offers . . . Must I know where he is going?

In Jesus do I see or hear something which . . . which wakens me to something worth giving up everything else for, abandoning all distractions for  . . .

The Good Shepherd comes looking for His lost sheep. The sheep follow Him because they know his voice. Knowing his voice entails following Him

Follow me, Jesus commands Peter and Andrew, James and John. Look! They go with him, where?

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Jesus speaks and things happen . . . this has never been seen since the creation of the world. God said ‘let there be light!’ And it was so! Jesus said ‘Follow me!’ and Immediately they went. Jesus words go deep. He casts his net into the depths of human hearts, to a place we didn’t even suspect existed. There we were, in charge of our own lives. Knowing what was right and what the day held before us, and where we were going . . . and then a voice. A voice from both beyond us and within us . . . We wake up! He gets his hook into us, and we go . . .

“The Scribes – well we hear them a lot, We sit around and discuss their teachings . . . What they say seems to make sense when we think about it. We can take it or leave it. It does not take hold of us.” I sometimes wonder if house groups are a bit like this . . .

We live in a world where we think it is all about us taking hold of things, grasping them, Figuring things out . . .  for ourselves. But this is not the Kingdom of God.. The KoG is about our being taken hold of. The formlessness and void of our lives apart from God are taken hold of by this Word – and leaps upwards in response. ‘he taught them as one having authority’.

Authority! Authority demands a response. We know this at one level. When you see those flashing lights in your rear view mirror, you know this is Authority demanding a response. And you pull over! You don’t drive on thinking, well I need to figure this one out for myself . . .

That is the nature of authority. As the Centurion sad to Jesus, I say come, and they come: I say go and they go! He recognizes Jesus’ authority for he knows the nature of authority. Authority makes things happen

Authority is not about sitting around and deciding for ourselves . . . Authority is about letting go of that. We can endlessly ponder the plight of Zebedee and the hired men, we can wonder if there is another way . . . and sat by the shore we will come up with lots of reasons. The moment will have passed. We have failed to recognize Authority. We have ears, but we haven’t heard. That place within us that flickered momentarily goes back to sleep, and so do we . . .

Suddenly! Immediately! Look! there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’

Stripped back to basics – hidden away, terrifying things, and in the presence of Jesus the secrets of hearts are revealed – from the heart of this man comes uncleanness . . . He is exposed before God . . .

This is what Jesus does, reveal the secrets of our hearts, things hidden even from ourselves in the depths of our being. He casts down into the depths . . .

The hidden thing is brought into the light, the man is healed . . .

When we follow, we follow from death to Life, from darkness to Light. But for some the Light is too bright, the Life is too real. We return to the world of darkness and dreams. Of comfortable illusions about ourselves, about Jesus and about God. Stories that leave us where we are. We don’t want to be found out . . .

The Guitar Judge found me out. I had to return to the beginning . . .

Jesus comes to us. God is walking in the garden in the cool of the day – We are found out . . . do we hide? Or do we respond to his voice, and his invitation to us to let go of our ideas, and to go where we don’t know . . . to trust him that whatever is revealed in us he will heal us of . . . to go where we don’t know, and never be the same

Let those with ears to hear, hear