Saturday, 4 April 2020

Palm Sunday 2020 The crowds in Jerusalem

Jean Francois and I were together, a typically grey overcast day but in the city the excitement was high, the crowds milling around outside the pubs, in the squares people selling programmes shirts and pennants. We had travelled from Paris and now were in Cardiff on the way to  Cardiff Arms Park for a five nations match between France and Wales: naturally the Welsh, passionate about singing and Rugby were in good voice and strong in numbers for this vital game between Gallic rivals: the whole city was alive with the prospect, conversation was about nothing else, the visiting French pursued by a cloud of Gallois smoke roamed through the pedestrian precincts equipped with flasks of Calvados proud and confident in l’equippe Francaise. As kick off time approached the atmosphere got hotter: The authorities became more visible mounted on huge police horses increasing their vigilance for the least of sparks that might ignite trouble.

So it must have been in Jerusalem that day as huge crowds gathered to celebrate the Passover festival, a time when expectations of God’s deliverance always reached fever heat among the pilgrims and when resentment of the Romans was a touch paper for nationalist passion.

And into all this came Jesus, throwing off the secrecy that had shielded his early ministry Jesus came.Notice the trouble that Jesus takes to make his kingship and his identity clear and not just that it is so but also the nature of that kingship. A donkey is an important symbol, it is a lowly animal, a slow creature one that is easy to approach   (not lofty and distant as someone sat on a horse) there are significant biblical precedents of rulers coming on donkeys as a sign of peace but most importantly the prophecy of Zechariah (9:9) is fulfilled in every detail.

Rejoice greatly O daughter Zion
Shout aloud O daughter Jerusalem
Lo your king comes to you
Triumphant and victorious is he
Humble and riding on a donkey
On a colt the foal of a donkey.

Jesus intends his entry to leave no doubt that he is coming as the Messiah who the Jews have been waiting for. During his ministry he had given many signs, healing the blind, the lame, driving out demons and as we heard last week raising Lazarus and now openly and symbolically he came to Jerusalem declaring boldly who he is.

Jesus has stepped out, now he is in the public arena as never before at the centre of the Jewish world, his time has come and he proclaims himself in his arrival at this time of heightened sensitivity, sensation, suspicion and after all hope, as the expected one setting off the adulation of the crowd :

“Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest heaven” they chant, they spread their cloaks before him laying down palm fronds, the very accolade that Roman emperors would give to victors in their games. The excitement mounts, the crowd whispers to one another that he is here, the roars increase and the authorities mounted and vigilant cannot fail to take careful note.

Of course we now know that the crowd have the wrong idea about what will happen next. They expect a sacking of the establishment, the collapse of the oppressive Roman occupiers, the overthrow of this to their eyes modern day Pharaoh and for them to be saved from the deeply felt and hated tyranny of empire. But what happens next is not an assault on the Roman garrison or their seat of power.

Jesus instead will go to the Temple, the seat of the High priests power and once there he will overturn the tables of the traders, drive out the money lenders declaring that “My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations.”  Jesus is the promised  Messiah but not at all as the crowds expected, he has indeed come to save them but not from the Romans but as he demonstrates by going to the very heart of religious observance. He has come to save them and all of us from ourselves.


Saturday, 28 March 2020

 The Raising of Lazarus : 5th Sunday of Lent John 11:1-45

There is an audio link to the service for the 5th Sunday of Lent here:

Please also look at the following link from the National Gallery London

In the league table of miracles “The Raising of Lazarus” is near the very top and among the best known. Deservedly, for it is a great event. Even so I was surprised by Sebastiano del Piombo’s painting which shows a much larger crowd than I had ever imagined streaming out from the town; there are people really pressing around Jesus and to me more surprisingly around Lazarus - and look how healthy he is! It feels even more surprising perhaps in light of our social distancing but somehow I always thought I would be seeing this from a distance afraid of what was going to happen when Jesus said “take away the stone.” I am sure that I would step sharply back and certainly would not be like the young man on the right of the picture peering over Lazarus’ shoulder to get a better look.  But perhaps Piombo has the better idea.

Indeed we read early on that Jesus intends this to be “for God’s glory so that the son of God may be glorified by it,” for which reason he stayed two days more even though he loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He continued this idea saying to the disciples “For your sake I am glad (I was not there) so that you may believe. Let’s go to him.” Jesus wants to be close up.

This account of lazarus only appears in John’s Gospel and its absence from Matthew, Mark and Luke has led many to question its truth. After all if it is so significant and it was certainly dramatic, why would the others have left it out? Readers considering Jesus’ miracles are sometimes tempted to explain them in terms of moder medical understanding but the details of this one as John tells them make it difficult to explain this one away like that.  Dead for four days, laid to rest by his sisters, wrapped in the grave cloths, the tomb sealed up. We are in no doubt that Lazarus is dead and that people, his closest relatives in fact, have seen him so and all this points up the magnitude of the miracle.

Still you may have some doubts.

When Somerset Maugham visited China in 1919 he made observations of what he saw and heard in a set of yellow notebooks and from these he later produced a set of stories1. One of these, only recently published, talks about stories themselves. The tale concerns the Japanese who wanting to build  an ocean liner applied to a firm of shipbuilders for a design and a quotation.  The shipbuilder sent both knowing that the Japanese would never accept the quotation. When the Japanese of course built the ship themselves from the plans it was found to have a great design flaw: It was so top heavy that it would only remain vertical if the hold were filled with a lot of concrete. But if you did that the boat was commercially unviable. Maugham’s short story tells that this very doubtful happening is told the length and breadth of China by everyone he meets and he sees that they tell it in their own way.

Now maybe you think Lazarus was not raised but the story of Lazarus is told, retold, depicted in classical and modern art and has a proverbial presence in our culture. Part of the miracle is that the story is told the length and breadth of the world.  We believe Jesus could have done this and that He intended us to hear of it.

Back for a moment then to the picture which is in the National Gallery - the crowd is good for Jesus wanted the world to know, the closeness is good for he wanted the world to see - so you know what I am going to say: we may not just now be able to be physically close to one another, social distance yourself please but not from Jesus for he loves us close up.


Saturday, 21 March 2020

Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday

{Note there is an audio edition of this sermon here within a service for Mothering Sunday  }

Sometime in the early Spring the lady geese start laying, at first the eggs like this one are scattered but then at a moment known only to her she decides to gather up straw into a nest in the corner of one of the sheds and lay in a more orderly fashion.  And there she sits for never less than thirty days and sometimes much longer, Very occasionally she may pop out for a drink or a blade of grass but mainly she sits there the whole time not eating nor drinking but shuffling straw, rearranging the eggs in the nest and repelling all potential invaders real or imagined with fierce hissing. Here then is a model of a mother’s dedication, she gives up all wandering, foraging, socialising, sunbathing even drinking and eating to hatch her chicks.

But then as we all know hatching is only the beginning - after that we have to be taught to eat, crawl, toddle, walk, talk,  dress, use a knife and fork, in fact an endless list of things just to be ready to think about flying the nest. Most often it is our parents and often particularly our mothers who provide the inspiration for all these things. We know very little about Jesus’ upbringing, apart from a short incident only recorded by Luke about Jesus as a boy in the temple in Jerusalem, the Gospels are quiet about his home life. It must though have been as with all of us vitally important and we see his care for his mother in our Gospel reading when even in the hour of his agony, torment and death he makes sure that she will be cared for,

“And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”

There is much in that phrase “into his own home”, it is one of those very human moments in the Gospels when the characters come off the page and live alongside us. Suddenly John is a real person and has a home, and one that Jesus recognises.

Shortly after I had started secondary school I was somehow persuaded to take part in the school production of the Merchant of Venice. Let me say at once that I was not a precocious Shylock but an urchin, not even the first urchin but one of three or four practically invisible and silent urchins who occupied a small far flung corner of the stage. Nevertheless, for this important role, I was compelled to attend the interminable after school rehearsals that meant I missed the usual transport home and had to fight the mysteries of the National Bus Company timetable, to take the bus once found to the end of our road when I would have to walk the three- quarters of a mile home from the bus stop late in the black cold winters night.

 Ahh ….. I hear you say - in any case I was hungry, cross and frustrated at squandering so much time for two moments of throwing imaginary stone marbles on a corner of the set that I was sure no none would ever notice. Now our house then, had a kitchen window which on rounding a corner could be seen from some distance away and I distinctly remember on one of these nights walking along grumbling and groaning aloud to myself about how much I hated this whole business and wishing that I had never started it when suddenly the kitchen window came into view and I realised that the golden square of light meant something special, that is was home and that more than anything else I wanted to be there.

Mary in her terrible bereavement, in the frightening days to come would need a safe place somewhere where you can escape the outside world, a place where you can pull up the drawbridge, a home. Such places are important to all of us even when like Mary we are no longer children and while they are often to be found in our parents’ homes, in our modern  more complex world they may be somewhere else, with our father, with an adoptive parent, with a grand parent, with a spouse, with a close friend - but wherever that is I want this morning to give thanks to God, firstly for our Mothers, for we all had a mother, but secondly for that place where we feel safe and loved, for our home, for that place in our hearts where we want to be and for the people there that make it special for us.


Tuesday, 17 March 2020

This afternoon the archbishops of Canterbury and York have issued the following statement:

Church of England advice is now here:
Last updated Tuesday 17 March 2020 at 13:30
In light of the Government guidance around non-essential contact, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have issued advice that public worship is suspended until further notice.
Churches should be open where possible but with no public worship services taking place. Prayers can be said by clergy and ministers on behalf of everyone and churches should consider ways of sharing this with the wider community.
Please see my post on face book and twitter this morning about requests for prayer. Our Burnham churches are open from early morning until evening. All are welcome.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Hope and Belief

Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

The whole congregation of Israel are grumblers. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, and our children and our livestock with thirst?” True, they have been wandering in he wilderness for a very long time and what seems to have happened is the bright promises of the Passover have faded before their troubled journeying and they have lost hope. They left Egypt on a high heading for the promised land, crossed the Red Sea buoyed by the triumph of the Lord over the waves and the destruction of the pursuing chariots, but now wandering, worried, thirsty impatient they have lost hope.  “Is the Lord with us or not?”

A Samaritan woman coming alone at noon to draw water from the well is a particular picture. Firstly as a Samaritan from birth she has been used to being treated as an outcast: The antipathy of the Jews for the Samaritans was such that they avoided all contact with each other, even much later than Jesus’ time it remained unlawful for a Jew to eat bread with or even buy certain foods from Samaritans. Now I have seen, as many of you may have done, women walking to wells in the early  morning or the cool of the evening to collect water. They come in groups, convivially, conversing this is a social occasion. Our unnamed woman comes at noon, no-one would come at that hottest time of the day so we know she is an outcast in her own community. (As the conversation with Jesus proceeds we discover why) So she is in a wilderness, she is thirsty she has little or no hope.

Paul writing to the Romans says we boast in our sufferings knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope.  He goes on to say “and our hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.”

In the desert God answers Moses prayer “Go on ahead of the people strike the rock and water will come out of it.” and it flowed from the rock and the people drank. God’s love was poured out of the rock - living water just there like the manna in the wilderness, when the Israelites were weak, despairing and angry God’s wine, which is still today the desert tribes people’s word for water, God’s wine was there abundantly.

The Samaritan women, alone, thirsty, dusty, tired, cast out from the village is cast in by Jesus: Stunned by the acceptance and welcome she listens to Jesus telling her of living water and she thirsts for it. “Sir, give me this water so that I may bever be thirsty again.” Her life is transformed, suddenly she has hope again and she goes back to her village so enthused that she is able to draw a crowd to the well.

It is through belief that we can have the the hope that first eluded but was then given to the Israelites and the Samaritan woman. Poured like water into their hearts and souls.

You may feel sometimes that we are living in an age when hopelessness could easily take hold. Last week there was a short news clip from Yemen where a doctor having discussed the case of a malnourished baby and indeed the child’s  malnourished mother turned away from the camera and said in dejection and little expectation “Take the war away from us and we will be alright.”

It was an emotional plea, who can bring hope to a situation like that? 

God, only God.

Sunday, 23 February 2020

Transfiguration and Encouragement

Transfiguration and Encouragement

Here we are on top of a mountain again, where we know that something important is about to happen. We will not be disappointed. To try to understand our Gospel of the transfiguration let us go back a bit to Matthew 16 (the previous chapter) and verse 21, only six verses before our reading begins.

“From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes and be killed and on the third day to be raised.” This comment is immediately after the conversation at Caesarea Philippi, the stylistic artistic and actual turning point in Mark’s Gospel where Peter, asked who he thinks Jesus is says: “You are the Messiah, son of the living God.”  This is faithfully also reported by Matthew, in his chapter 16. So, Jesus’ closest disciples comes to the right realisation of who Jesus is, having followed him for months and lived the highs of the ministry of teaching, healing and miracles and then …. And then is told that Jesus is going to die.

Why we may ask, now quite late in Jesus’ time, does he take only three of his disciples with him and not all twelve? After all he has been teaching them all, they should be close knit by now. I want to suggest that these three were his closest friends, Peter, James and John and that Jesus moved by their despondency at the news he has been giving them took them with his to the top of the mountain to encourage them.

And what encouragement it was.  They all three know the detail of Moses going up the mountain to receive the commandments: That he took only his closest assistant, Joshua, (who also was designated his successor), that the mountain covered with a cloud showed the glory of the Lord like a devouring fire, and they would of course like us remember that Moses on reappearing was radiant.

See how many elements were shown now in real life to Peter, James and John. The mountain, Jesus’ face transfigured so it shone like the sun, his white garments, a bright cloud, the voice of God reiterating those words at Jesus’ baptism “This is my son, the beloved, ith him I am well pleased; listen to him.”

I suspect you see that the disciples found it all too easy to believe that Jesus could die at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes after all these folk had not hidden their anger at Jesus and they were living in a brutal world, where becoming an enemy of the state courted such consequences.” But whether they could so easily believe “and on the third day be raised” I doubt.

So Jesus, knowing all this, takes them to a mountain and surrounds them with symbols they perfectly comprehend. And then he adds something else  - they know all about Elijah, how he did not die but was taken up in a chariot of fire and there he is , the prophet alongside Moses the lawgiver so clearly actually there that Peter is moved to make a shelter for them. Look Jesus is saying here is proof for you that there is life after death. Look and listen to me.

We all need encouragement, even Peter the rock. We have heard in Peter’s letter how good it was:

“We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty” and then Peter refers to this special occasion:  “we ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on his holy mountain.”

So don’t be tempted to parcel up the transfiguration as something difficult and apart but ponder upon it and try to see it as an encouragement now for the whole church and a demonstration of those things which we believe.


Sunday, 9 February 2020

Religious leaders can be wrong

Isaiah 58: 1-12, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

Our three readings this morning, Isaiah, Corinthians and Matthew have I think something in common. Each of them is critical of religious leaders. Isaiah, robustly, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!”  How is it he says, that day after day my people seek me and delight to know my ways, fasting overtly in sackcloth and ashes, yet have misunderstood?  How do you not see that I want you to fight injustice with effectiveness, to look after the poor and the hungry, find shelter for the homeless?

Paul writing to the church in Corinth criticises them for their worldliness; your faith is not to rest on worldly wisdom, he says, but on the power of God. “I did not come to you proclaiming the mystery of God to you in words of lofty wisdom.” No I came in weakness, fear and trembling relying only on the life and death of Jesus Christ. “We speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden.”

An idea amplified by Jesus teaching the disciples: Look he says, through what I am teaching you, you are the light of the world, do not, now your lamp is lit, hide it. No, put it on a lampstand where all can see it. And do not misunderstand, I have not come to abolish the law or previous understanding but to build upon it and to fulfill. Your righteousness, your good works must exceed those of the scribes and the pharisees, the religious leaders of the time.

The people of Israel and their leaders were wrong, those expecting to find God through Greek, logic, rhetoric and philosophies were wrong, the disciples had misunderstood and we know they will continue to misunderstand, they were so frequently wrong and so we might not be so surprised that Bishops can be wrong.

The mind of God is troublesome to discover.

As Paul reminds us, what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived - this is what God has prepared for those who love him. Humans he tells us, know human things.

Well, actually, I know only very imperfectly what I think I know. I say imperfectly because my mind has changed in more than sixty years and I am not ready to stable it away yet, hoping that it remains open to run with new ideas. Maybe they will come from good arguments, from my mind’s  own energies but hopefully mostly by the work of the Holy Spirit.

The house of Bishops got itself in hot water last week, and a number of people mentioned it to me, many more mentioned it to them and so they came with an apology. The pity of it is, that the statement was unnecessary, it simply reaffirmed the views expressed before. So where are we?  A while ago the Bishops committed to prepare a teaching document called “Living in Love and Faith” which is now to be presented to the Lambeth Conference in July. I expect that General Synod may debate it after that.

The mind of God is troublesome to discover.

So: we wait and see, and pray that this report or range of resources will in Paul’s words speak God’s wisdom secret and hidden, that  in Isaiah’s words the ruins will be rebuilt and that in Jesus’ words “our light may shine before others.”