Monday, 29 April 2019

Fingers on Buzzers please ......

Exodus 14: 10 -end The parting of the Red Sea
John 20: 19-31         Doubting Thomas

Fingers on buzzers please - your starter for 10:

If 7 is hail and thunderstorms, and 9 is darkness what is 2?
The answer to this University Challenge question is frogs, and the bright young things easily got it right. Now the Israelites had witnessed all these attempts to persuade Pharoah to let them leave Egypt and to free them from the slavery of making bricks without straw, they had celebrated what we know as the Passover and had chosen to follow Moses, their leader and a man of God.

Yet despite all these clear signs from Yahweh, of frogs, lice, flies, boils, locusts not to mention the slaying of all the first born they came to a crisis of faith. “What have you done bringing us out of Egypt - were there not enough graves there for us to die into?”

Some of you know already that I am a fan of Handel’s Oratorio “Israel in Egypt” because I played a little of it at our Lent courses. At the end of part two there are three short and connected choruses:

“But the waters overwhelmed their enemies”
There was not one of them left,
There was not one not one not one of them left

“And Israel saw that great work”
That the Lord did upon the Egyptians
And the people feared the Lord

“And believed the Lord”
And his servant Moses

Thomas was one of the twelve, now the eleven. He had been with Jesus watching him perform miracles, expelling demons, healing the leprous, was alongside him as he preached and taught praying with him and was one of his most fervent followers. When Jesus hears of Lazarus’ death the other disciples try to prevent him from going to Bethany saying “No, no the Jews are waiting to stone you” but Thomas the twin said “Let us also go that we may die with him.”

Yet despite all these clear signs and Jesus’ own testimony that he would rise again after three days, when Thomas hears from the disciples that they have seen the Lord, he comes to a crisis of faith.

We do not know why Thomas was not in the room with the  others but I prefer to think that this was Jesus’ intent for we learn much from his absence. A week or so later Jesus came again; “Peace be with you”  Jesus of course knew of Thomas’ doubts, there is no upbraiding, but rather like the good shepherd seeking the lost sheep Jesus opens himself up, he opens himself totally to Thomas:

“Put your finger here and see my hands
Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

Thomas, without placing his fingers or hand in Christ’s body  becomes no longer doubting Thomas but, and as he always will be for me Believing Thomas: “My Lord and my God” he says in complete acceptance not just of Jesus’ presence but of his whole identity as Jesus and God.

The encouragement we draw from this is inestimable; this man who doubted came to be an extraordinary missionary and worked all over the East notably in India where he is particularly celebrated. What hope these two stories give us - we see that many before us with direct  experience of God’s works had moments of panic. “I am not sure, have I made a mistake, can it be true? Should we have stayed with the Egyptians or the non believers?

 Back to Handel for a moment:

And Thomas saw that great work, and believed in the Lord.


Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Easter Sunday - On the first day of the week while it was still dark

I wish I could paint - I do not mean the skimpy pen and wash apologies that fill my sketchbooks but I mean really paint!  I have Rembrandt in mind - There are three Rembrandt paintings from John’s Gospel:

Jesus and the Samaritan woman
The lifting of the cross
Doubting Thomas

But not the one I would like to paint -  emulating his style with layers of paint and with his use of light (which is extraordinary and always illuminates the detail of the story) with all of this I would like to make a canvass  “On the first day of the when it was still dark, Mary came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed.”

Take a moment please to imagine, any Rembrandt that you remember and apply it to this scene: Mary barely lit, the stone rolled away softly glowing, the centre of the miraculous moment like the Father’s hands on the prodigal son or the light on Jesus in the supper at Emmaus. Perhaps your  picture will be like this.

Now many of us will have returned to discover something unexpected, perhaps our car or our bicycle is not where we thought. Panic sets in - or it does with me - am I in the right place? Has it rolled away down the hill? Was it on another floor in that multi-storey? Our first idea is to try to find a rational explanation for what we see. When that fails our second is to tell someone else and see if they can help, Frances where did I leave the car? Mary I imagine went through all these things quickly and in a state of anxiety before deciding that somebody else had interfered with Jesus’ body and rushing to the disciples she says “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” Our third reaction is to blame someone: Frances, somebody has stolen the car!
Usually we discover the cause of our bewilderment and after all nothing too major has happened we find the right floor,the stolen car is recovered, the insurance pays up - life goes on.

But when Jesus was found everything changed. His resurrection was singular, there has been nothing like it before and nothing like it since. You may perhaps have Lazarus in mind but Lazarus awakened from his grave has again a mortality and is to die again. Jesus was raised from the dead but with a transformed embodiment. Mary does not recognise him until he speaks directly to her calling her name “Mary”

Then she does realise, recognise and the relief flows through her in great waves.
“Rabbouni” she cries - and like a mother finding a child she wants to hold him close to embrace him. Just as we would want to.

Our painting of Mary in the gloaming, in front of a tomb, the stone rolled away has to convey this - that everything has changed most especially our understanding of life, our understanding of death. For this we need a painter of the calibre of Rembrandt to paint the stones, the tomb, the garden, Mary and the mysterious light he would bring to the scene.

The light that allows us in funeral services to say:

Ini sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our lord Jesus CHrist who will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body”

This is the promise, made real of Jesus alive.


Friday, 19 April 2019

Maundy Thursday Evening

Begin by standing unannounced on a chair

I know that energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light -because my physics teacher did just this - he stood on a chair and told us so.

You do not forget a thing like that.

What has struck me about this passage this year is how  Jesus continued teaching. We are told that he knew that his hour had come and that he loved his friends. I have not been at a farewell supper with quite this poignancy but I think I might anticipate a more sombre tone. And then during supper Jesus did this - like any good lesson he begins by grabbing the disciples attention, not by jumping on a chair, but by getting up from the table, taking off his robe and wrapping a towel around himself.What a shock, what is he doing they would say? And then he pours water into a basin and begins to wash their feet. I do not need to tell you about how menial a task this is, how only the most lowly of the servants would do this,  nor how dusty the roads were - you know all these things and the disciples knew them all too. But now they are focussed on the questions.

Energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light : Jesus the Messiah, the man we call the Son of God is washing my feet - but what could this really mean?
“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks as he brings them to the threshold of a new understanding. Jesus knows that in a few hours he will be betrayed, will be arrested, that he will walk the path to death, and he absolutely does not stop for knowing all this he is still teaching, still growing his disciples, still taking time to show them what it means.

“I give you a new commandment that you should love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” 

Jesus spells it out - look over all the things you have seen me do, all the things we have done together, look too at the thing that I am about to do- this is what it is about - change your lives, stop seeking advantage, preferment, an edge over your neighbour, a better place at table, and as I have loved you show love for one another. Here is the great lesson, remember in the time to come that I who you call Lord and teacher washed your feet, and told you to love one another.

You don’t forget a thing like that.


Monday, 15 April 2019

Palm Sunday 2019

Sermon Palm Sunday April 2019

We do not have a live donkey, well not this year - but maybe in time, maybe next year. I do have a knitted one though and it is a good place to start.

Somehow we have to move in our imagination from this peaceful church, from the blessing of  our carefully fashioned palm crosses from this quietly knitted reminder to the frenetic chaos of Jerusalem at Passover time. Apart from anything else the city was crowded. The historian Josephus writes that two and a half million Jews came for the festival and even if this were a tenfold exaggeration we still struggle to imagine how the city might have held them all. Jews from Babylon with their trailing black robes, from Phoenicia in their tunics and striped drawers, Jews from the plateaux of Anatolia dressed in goats hair cloaks, Persian Jews gleaming in silk brocaded with gold and silver. All these people crowded into the city - many had to sleep outside the town in the suburbs, on the hills, in tents or huts made of branches or perhaps under the open sky as Jesus and his disciples did that night in Gethsemane. Add to this the mixture of power - the Roman occupiers, Temple magnates, Herodian princelings the palaces of Antipas and the high priest Joseph Caiaphas. No wonder then that Pilate who usually ruled his province from Caesarea on the coast came to Jerusalem to supervise it all.

I was in Sheffield one Saturday when Sheffield Wednesday were to play Sheffield United for an early evening kick off. From mid afternoon the pavements outside the bars were thronged there were police riot vans on the street corners, shouting fans and burly truncheon carrying police keeping the factions apart. There was anticipation, enthusiasm, and excitement but above all a tension, a wariness the sensation that a small unexpected spark could set off trouble.

Into such a Jerusalem a town in maelstrom with money changers, the produce sellers and complete with 200,000 sheep waiting sacrifice, Jesus came.

Surrounded by his followers waving palm branches who are crying “Hosanna!” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” and amplifying this point Jesus is on a colt, never ridden before in fulfilment of a long anticipated prophecy.

The line between joyous proclamation and provocation is thin - the authorities are on edge - like the police in Sheffield, they want the supporters to have a good time but are keenly watchful - when to step in? Could this all get out of hand? Shall we be in for a riot? I was extremely uncomfortable in the city that afternoon, I crossed the road zigzagging right and left to be away from the surging from the pub doors, looking for a peaceful place to be.

But Jesus, at some point outside the city at Bethphage and Bethany had accepted all that was to take place. From this moment, of sending for the donkey, of receiving it, of mounting it he shows us how he became humble, obedient and willing to do all that his Father asks of him. From now on, from that simple quiet act of getting on a donkey the cogs are enmeshed. The donkey walks steadily from the peace of the countryside to the turmoil, tumult and shocking events of the week to come, the week that will change the world and change our relationship with God forever.


Monday, 8 April 2019

The anointing at Bethany

5th Sunday of Lent : John 12:1-8

The sermon opened with a short extract from piece of music from Gabriel Jackson’s The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and also makes reference to Velasquez “Kitchen scene with Christ in the house of Martha and Mary” which is in the National Gallery

That piece of music is  from Gabriel Jackson’s “The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jackson was born in Bermuda in 1962, so many many years after J S Bach but he too as Bach does in his St. Matthew Passion begins his piece following an introduction with a setting of the “Anointing at Bethany.” Jackson’s music captures the ecstasy and worship of Mary and somehow too with those falling notes of the harp the slow pouring out of the costly perfume. And it was costly, the  price was more than a year’s wages for a labourer. In the passion and in these two musical settings it stands and prefigures the coming pouring out of Jesus’ life for us. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume as our lives are to be filled with Jesus’ love.

But, I wonder when you hear this story where are you in the house?

Are you, as I have often thought I would be, in the room somewhere watching Mary do this amazing thing? Not only does she pour out the perfume but she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair foreshadowing Jesus washing and wiping the disciples’ feet in just a few days time. Or are you Martha?

I would like you to look at the picture by Velasquez, “Kitchen scene with Christ in the house of Martha and Mary.” Now, I am cheating a little because this composition is based on Luke 10 where Jesus is not in the Pharisee’s house but in Mary and Martha’s house. In this account Martha askes “Lord do you not care that my sister has left me do all the work?” The Gospel of John has I think conflated these two events as he tells us in our reading Martha served - while Mary worshiped and wiped.

But look at the painting and imagine the young woman in the kitchen to be Martha; she is pounding something in a  mortar, being active her strong arm grinding the garlic and the pepper, the fish waiting for the sauce. She is in the foreground while behind in a picture within a picture through the hatchway is Mary kneeling at Jesus’ feet, still, thoughtful, attentive, rapt, not as I say about to anoint Jesus but she might be …… Looking again at Martha we see the tension, she is welling up with tears, she wants to be with Jesus but duty and fish and eggs keep her tied in the kitchen.

Where are you in the house?

Do we find ourselves drawn by activity ,good creative and necessary though it may be? Are these things in our foreground while the prayerful, quiet, reflective parts of us are pushed to the back? Is there anything we Marthas can do to be more like Mary, to be in the room with Jesus?

You may have noticed that in Holy week I have put three services of Compline. Compline was the last of the canonical hours included in the rule of St.Benedict and is said before retiring to bed. It is a very old service, predating Benedict, and I invite you to come on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Holy week at 6.30. I ask you just to come, you have to do nothing but bring yourselves, to contemplate a candle and let these centuries old prayers take you to into the house and into the room at Jesus’ feet.