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.