Beauty surrounds us, but we usually need to be walking in a garden to know it - Rumi
On Sunday I preached my first sermon at St Mary Magdalene Church.
On arrival I was met by a Churchwarden who greeted me with the words: " I hope you are in good voice this morning. Last nights storm took out all the electrical supply in the church. The fuse box just melted. So, we have no lights, nor microphones." The service went ahead with some people using the torch on their mobile phones to read the hymns whilst others just hummed along. Fortunately there was a window next to the Lectern from which I preached so I had a little light and with a bit of voice projection even those in the back pews heard God's message.
Here is my sermon::
This morning’s Epistle was written whilst Paul was in chains, in a prison in Rome. Whether Paul himself wrote it or someone on his behalf is the subject of debate amongst scholars, but that need not concern us here. It is addressed to the small community that Paul established at Ephesus in Asia Minor on one of his missionary journeys. It uses the analogy of the armour of a Roman soldier, perhaps the one who was guarding Paul at the time. I take from it that he is saying that as the soldier trusts his armour to protect him against his enemy so the spiritual armour of God, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit will protect them as the King James version puts it ‘on the evil day’. In other words the spiritual armour, a trust in God, can be trusted as the soldier’s physical armour. However, from this passage the words that leapt out at me were: “Pray also for me that I may be granted the right words when I speak, and may boldly and freely make known the hidden purpose of the gospel.” Now I am not in prison nor in chains as Paul was, but as I start my preaching ministry, I echo St Paul’s plea, and ask you all to pray for me that I may be granted the right words to speak. It is a daunting challenge and one that I have been trying to avoid accepting. When the small still voice first spoke to me I resisted and continued to do so for many months, despite the persistence of the call. After all, I said to myself, St Mary Magdalene already has three very experienced preachers. Does it need an aged novice like me? Anyway, what could I offer? I am not qualified to preach. But someone reminded me that God does not call the qualified He qualifies the called. So here I am.
I thank you, Father M, and you Father G, for all your encouragement and support and for delaying this commissioning service until my friends and family could be present. It is a great encouragement to me that so many of you here to support me.
The young church at Ephesus was probably no bigger than the congregation here and would have met in one another’s houses, sharing food, comfort and worship together. But also because there were so many enemies out there; pagan deities to be worshipped and antagonism from the Jewish community who would not accept them, for example. They came together like a family really. Family is important. Together we share each other’s joys and sorrows. Together we share the bad times as well as the good so that if one is in trouble the others will rally round to help. Together the family provides a safe place, a home, to which any member can return, whatever they have done, and know that they are always welcome. Our families teach us how to share, how to love, how to be fair, and how to serve others. Of course, being human not all members of a family will see eye to eye on everything. Indeed, even in the best regulated family its members will sometimes cause us a great deal of pain and suffering, and again none of us can predict the future, which can throw up some very nasty surprises, as the coronavirus pandemic has shown, but still we all share a common bond.
When the going gets tough for us, as it did at Ephesus, it is easy to forget that we are members of God’s family and turn away from Him, to seek solace elsewhere. But God did not promise that our path through life would be smooth, God knows that there will be ups and downs, mountains to climb, rivers and valleys to cross. Yet when the disciples were faced with the option of going elsewhere Simon Peter said, as we heard in our Gospel reading: “Lord, to whom will we go? We believe and know that you are God’s Holy One”. But even he, when faced with the ultimate challenge, did what I suspect any of us would have done and fled.
We are all members of the large and diverse family of God. It is a family made up of human members who may not see eye to eye on everything and indeed who will sometimes cause each other pain and suffering. Now, one thing of which we can be certain is that God understands the problems all families face. After all over the centuries, the millennia, His human family has caused Him untold distress and suffering and, sadly, continues to do so. But it is a family whose God and Father loves His Creation unconditionally, each and every part of it. As Solomon said in our OT reading: showing them constant love. He is a God who wants the best for them whoever they are and whatever they have done. And because of that, the one thing He did promise was that He will be with us; He will never fail us or forsake us so that we don’t have to carry our burdens alone. The prophet Isaiah writing many years before St Paul put it this way: 'For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.'
Let me tell you a story that illustrates that point:
One day, pre Covid, I had to visit the dentist. Whilst awaiting my turn a young girl about 4 or 5 years old, came bouncing in to the waiting room holding her father’s hand. Father explained to the receptionist that he wanted to register his daughter as a new patient. They sat by the window where they could see the traffic, the passers-by, the trees and the birds. The child had no idea where she was or why. Daddy had brought her here in his car and led her to this room, where everyone sat quietly reading or staring into the distance, waiting for something to happen. Anyway, there were lots of interesting things to see from the window. Daddy spoke to a lady but when she left them he was still there so everything was ok, wasn’t it? She climbed on his lap, gave him a big hug and a great big smile that lit up the whole waiting room. Father put his arm around his daughter and there could be no doubt about the love he had for her. A love that was clearly reciprocated. When the nurse called them to see the dentist father stood up and offered his hand to his daughter. She took it without hesitation, clutched it tightly, and went with him through the door and along the corridor. She had no idea what lay beyond that door or where the corridor led, but Daddy had a firm hold of her hand and she knew instinctively that he would not let anything bad happen to her. She loved and trusted him as he loved her.
So, whatever you do this coming week remember we are all members of God’s family, a family whose Father loves us and cares for us unconditionally. He is a God and Father, who will not let us face the slings and arrows of this world alone. In fact, He offers us His hand and calls us to follow Him, to go with Him. As the little girl took her father’s hand with confidence and followed him, even though she had no idea where they were going, or what lay beyond that door, so are we called to take the hand our God and Father offers us and follow him, even though we may have no clear idea where we are going. The hand that is offered is God’s unconditional love for us summed up in the word Abba, which means Father, but can probably best be translated as Daddy. Taking God’s hand and following him is our response to God’s unfailing love for us.
The last three years hadn’t worked out quite as the disciples had expected. John the Baptist had pointed out Jesus to Andrew who had brought his brother Simon to listen to what Jesus had to say. It was pretty powerful stuff so powerful that Andrew, Simon, James and John gave up their fishing business to follow this Rabbi. Indeed, when later Jesus asked Simon Peter who he was, Peter replied that: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Mat 16.16 His message was sound and the kingdom he proposed was exactly what was needed and just the opposite of the severe rule imposed by their Roman oppressors. Now since it threatened their positions within the Roman system his message upset the High priests and their cohorts. They realised that the Romans weren’t worried about how the Jews practised their religion, YHWH was just another god to them, but the idea of a Jewish Messiah or King Emperor would threaten them and bring down the retribution of the Empire. Hence their plan to get rid of Jesus.
The disciples had high hopes that things would change when Jesus assumed his rightful place as Messiah and thus ruler of Israel. His entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey that day seemed to be the time. But it hadn’t happened then; indeed he had been crucified as a common criminal. His resurrection and appearances to them in the days following gave them hope once more. When forty days after his resurrection he took them up the mountain called Olivet, they thought this must be the time for Jesus to take up his role as Messiah and restore Israel to its former glory. As Luke tells us: ‘Then they gathered round him and asked him “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”’ Jesus did not address their question directly but did say that, ‘“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” and with that he was taken up into heaven, never to be seen again. Acts 1:6-9. There seemed nothing more for the disciples to do so they returned to Jerusalem to the upstairs room where they were lodging.
You can imagine their confusion, their worries, their anxieties and their fears. For the last three years Jesus had always been with them but now they were on their own. Their days of fishing were behind them but what lay ahead? They had Jesus’ last word, his command to go out into all the world to proclaim his message ringing in their ears. What a daunting task that would be! Yes, they had been out on their own before but then Jesus had been awaiting them on their return. Now He would not be! Where was he when they needed him? He was gone now, they had seen him taken up into heaven. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would come on them but when would that happen and what use would that be? So many questions and Jesus not here to answer them!
I can imagine the Apostle James saying to the disciples assembled in that room: “Jesus has promised the Holy Spirit would come and he will. We just don’t know when at the moment but Jesus has never let us down yet, and I for one don’t believe He ever will. Let us stop panicking and pray as He taught us.” And that, Luke tells us, is exactly what they did. And, as promised, the Holy Spirit did come on the disciples at Pentecost, the Jewish Festival of Weeks that celebrates the bringing in of the Spring harvest. As a result with the support and guidance of the Holy Spirit, they were able to carry Jesus’ message to all nations of the world.
So, when everything seems to be getting on top of you; when you can’t see a way out of the troubles, the darkness and gloom surrounding you, remember how the disciples reacted, 'constantly devoting themselves to prayer' Acts 1:14, and follow their example. God is there and will walk with you wherever He calls you to go and however perilous the journey.
This week, when trouble comes knocking on your door: ‘Panic less and pray more’. May the Lord be with you this coming week in all you do and say.
On Saturday 8th May, we celebrated the Feast Day of St Julian of Norwich. Born about 1342 Julian may not have been her given name but it is the name she adopted from the church dedicated to St Julian in Norwich where she spent a great deal of her life as an anchorite in a cell attached to the church. She was the first woman to publish a book, Reflections of Divine Love, a book that is still in print to this day. And it is from this book that I want to take just one question she asked: ‘Would’st thou know the Lord’s meaning?’ And the answer she discovered was: ‘Know it well. Love was his meaning.’ For the rest of her life she proclaimed that message from her cell. That was her calling, her mission. When we think about mission we might remember Paul’s arduous missionary journeys through what is now Asia Minor setting up new Christian churches, or maybe the Jesuit missions to the Far East, Africa and the Americas, or perhaps more recently the work of the Church Missionary Society. All worthy missions bringing a great many people to Christ. Julian’s mission by comparison was on a smaller scale although her influence is still felt around the world nearly 800 years after her death.
Now, I understand that her cell had two windows, one looking onto the interior of the church so that she could follow the services and receive her spiritual sustenance in the form of Holy Communion, whilst the other looked out onto the street where people would come to ask for her prayers and where she could tell those passing by about God; where she could explain Love was His meaning in words they could understand
Just for a moment, put yourself in Julian’s place. Look out of the window onto the street, who do you see there? Is there just one person who needs your love and prayer today? It need not be a great undertaking, just a simple gesture may be sufficient. It may be a phone call to a friend you have not met up with for a while due to this Covid pandemic. It may be just sitting in silence, holding the hand of someone who tells you a story from their past, even though you’ve heard it a thousand times before. Simple things perhaps but remember Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed. It is the smallest seed but when fully grown the birds nest in its branches. Now look out of the second window opening onto the church; the window where Julian received Holy Communion, and realise that we too need that same spiritual sustenance, for alone we can do nothing but if God is with us nothing is impossible.
Let us end by praying together these words Julian of Norwich wrote all those years ago since they are just as relevant to us today:
Lord, let not our souls be busy inns that have no room for thee or thine, but quiet homes of prayer and praise, where thou mayest find fit company, where the needful cares of life are wisely ordered and put away, and wide sweet spaces kept for thee; where holy thoughts pass up and down and fervent longings watch and wait thy coming. (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love Penguin Classics p 169)
So this week I invite you to find out more about Julian of Norwich but in any case let us put into action the words of the Dismissal after Sung Eucharist: Go in peace to Love and serve the Lord.. Just as St Julian did before us.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday from the Gospel reading for the day. Jesus often used the imagery of shepherds because it was central to the economy of the Jews, but more importantly to their history and religious thought. Many of the great figures of their history and religion had been shepherds at least for part of their lives. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all had flocks of sheep whilst Moses and David both worked as shepherds before they were called to lead God’s people to a better life. They were called by God to become shepherds of men. God worked through them but they brought their shepherding skills to their new work. So what about us?
In the Gospel reading St John tells us that Jesus says: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ John 10:11 NRSV. This is indeed Good News but later he says: ‘I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd’. Where do they fit in to God’s plan and who are they anyway? The disciples who first heard those words probably assumed that Jesus was referring to other Jews who did not at present follow “The Way” as they were known. At His Ascension Jesus made it clear to them that: ‘… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ Acts 1:8NRSV, yet, despite this they still held to the view that Christianity was part of their Jewish religion, a fulfilment of it, for Jews wherever they were throughout the world. Indeed, had it not been for the evangelism of St Paul Christianity might well have remained just that, a small Jewish sect among many others, which would probably have died out when the Roman Emperor Nero wreaked havoc on the Jewish people blaming the Christians for the Jewish Revolt.
All countries, and all communities are necessarily made up of so many disparate parts; persons of different ethnicity, sexual orientation perhaps, rich and poor, well fed and starving, able and disabled, some living in multi-million pound mansions whilst some exist homeless, begging on the streets. Some may be Christian whilst many may not, yet, I believe that Jesus encompasses all of these when he says; ‘I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.’ Each member of society, whoever he or she is needs to hear His voice so that ‘there will be one flock, one shepherd’.
Now, we need to remember that as Christians we are not an elite, privileged few who by our regular attendance at church, putting money in the collection plate and singing the right hymns have already booked our place on the bus heading for heaven. We are called to be ‘good shepherds’. We must, therefore be open to accepting those of a different flock, those who are “not like us” into our church family, making provision for their disability, understanding their difficulties and listening to their problems. In other words making them truly welcome so that they feel comfortable and accepted in the family of the church. We are to invite them to join the adventure of following Jesus, to discover with us a new way of being human – a way to live differently. After all, there are usually at least two doors to any church and whilst it may be easy to get people in by the front door they can leave just as quickly by the back door.
You may feel that this is all so very obvious as not to need repeating, but reflect on this event which I am told happened at a church recently.
Mother and her six young children had attended Messy Church for a while and everyone enjoyed themselves. One Sunday morning she brought them to Sung Eucharist at 10am. Being children the youngsters enjoyed themselves playing with the familiar toys at the back of the church. Unfortunately some of the congregation found it unsettling and left the service, although the majority stayed. Embarrassed at the confusion she felt she had caused she gathered up her little flock and fled the building never to be seen again; which is a pity since she may have been the one lost sheep that Jesus was looking for having left the other ninety nine singing their hymns of worship as they always did at this time on a Sunday.
So let us take a good look at ourselves and our church and ask if we really are ‘good shepherds’. Do we welcome those ‘other sheep that do not belong to this fold’, into our church family, allowing them also to ‘listen to my voice’, so that there will be ‘one flock, one shepherd’ our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us take time this week to think and pray about that.
This week I take as my text a verse from St Peter’s first letter to one of the young churches: ‘like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ 1 Peter 2:5 NRSV
A stone must be the most inanimate object around! And yet we are called to be ‘living stones’. What is that all about? We don’t think of building houses with blocks of stone nowadays, although it was common in earlier times. The Temple at Jerusalem would have been constructed that way and you just need to look at the ruins of the old abbeys and churches around Europe today to see examples of the stonemason’s craft. I’m sure we’ve all seen pictures of them fashioning huge blocks of stone into a piece to fit exactly into the building. But the word stone covers a whole variety of pieces of rock so let’s explore further. It is a bright sunny morning so come take a walk with me in our local country park.
As we leave the car park we enter through a gate where we see much of the country park laid out before us. The ground slopes down to the lake before rising to woodlands and open fields on the other side. On our left is a path through the trees leading to St Peter’s Church at the top of the hill. However, we won’t take that path at present but will continue down to the lake for a stroll around it. There are a variety of waterfowl swimming and feeding on the lake, whilst at one point there is a small beach like area to assist small water-birds gain access to the shore, if they wish. The area is covered with shingle, small pebble like stones. Now, in my youth I always liked to skim stones across the surface of the water to see how many times I could make the stone bounce before sinking under the water. I was never very successful but it was interesting to see how far the ripples spread. Think for a moment just what effect throwing a large block of stone into the lake would have. It would cause a tidal wave whose ripples would reach the furthest shore, and maybe beyond!
In the same way, whilst your kind word or caring action will make someone feel better it will also have an effect on their mental wellbeing and their outlook. For example, you may be the only person they have spoken to today and it could affect how they speak to the next person who rings them, or even whether they bother to cook a meal for themselves today. Or maybe your act of compassion will enable a carer to get some rest before starting all over the following morning. Any number of small words and acts of compassion that will make a huge difference. Those ripples will spread out far beyond their original recipient. Now remember that those pebbles came from the same earth compacted over millennia as the blocks of stone used to build the abbeys, cathedrals and temples in past times. We, likewise are part of the Body of Christ, the spiritual house of which St Peter speaks, and God created us to be a holy priesthood, stewards of His Creation and created in His image:
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind[c] in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ Genesis 1:26 NRSV
Being part of that priesthood, our task is to work towards the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as Jesus promised it would and as we pray each day: ‘Thy Kingdom come…. On earth as it is in Heaven’
Whilst each individual action of kindness, each act of compassion is vital, and if we feel that is all we can offer, well and good. Nevertheless working together in unity we can, like the large block of stone dropped in the lake, make a much greater impact on the world; a tsunami effect really. Our joint action in standing together against social injustice, against the rape of the planet, the greed, the racial hatred that is so much in evidence today, will make a difference. Of course, lifting a large block of stone is not easy and we will need help to do so. But we have the help and support of the Holy Spirit working with us and within us, as Jesus promised.
So will you join me in making a difference to this world? It sorely needs it!
Over the last couple of weeks I have reflected on this page on two of the three Spiritual Graces of which St Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Corinthian church; Faith and Hope. This week I want to focus on the greatest of them all, Love. God’s all-embracing, all encompassing, unconditional love for each and every member of His Creation, which of course includes you and me.
But why should God love man with all his faults and foibles, his wanderings and his disobedience, not to mention his downright disregard for God and His Creation for much of the time? Even the Psalmist asks: ‘When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Psalm 8:3-6 KJV. The answer lies in the first chapter of the first book of the Hebrew Bible where we read that on the sixth day God created Man in His own image and gave him dominion over all that He had made. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good. Genesis 1:31. In other words, nothing God had made or ever does make is bad, rotten or unwanted. Thus everything has a purpose, everything serves and loves God in its own way, and that must include you and me.
My question last week asking where you found God today, prompted several responses but two completely different replies, each of which in its own way, illustrate God’s love for us.
The first came from a friend who sent me a photograph he had taken during a walk along the riverbank. The trees were coming into leaf, the wild spring flowers bloomed shyly at the water edge, the river flowed lazily onwards who knows where and you could almost hear the birds singing in the trees and the animals snuffling in the undergrowth. It was altogether a beautiful tranquil scene and one where there could be no doubt of God’s presence. The love and the glory of God’s Creation was on display everywhere on that bright but no doubt chilly day. It seems that even the grass snake had been forgiven!
Speaking of snakes the second story came from a Methodist preacher who, at one time, lived on one of the Canary Islands. He told me about two priests, one Roman Catholic and the other Anglican, who were discussing the need for an ecumenical church on the island. The Catholic priest toured the island in search of a suitable site but having very little money was unable to find anything he or his community could afford. Until one day, that is, when he was drawn to an unused, derelict two storey car park behind a supermarket. It was filthy, filled with rubbish, used needles and much else of an unsavoury nature. This unloved building was in the process of falling down and yet, standing here the priest said he heard God say to him, “This is where I want you to build my church. Here among the rubbish and ruins.” As no one wanted it the priest was able to buy the site for a ridiculously small sum and then the money started rolling in from the community to build and fit it out. In amongst the grime, the rubbish thrown away, the discarded detritus of the town, God was there speaking to the priest because it was where He wanted His church to be built. No ordinary building but: ‘A spiritual house, built with living stones, a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.’ 1 Peter 2:5. At the first service he took there, sometime after it had been built, the preacher announced the first hymn and was amazed to hear it sung in so many different languages all at the same time! The church had grown to be a true church for people of all nationalities and traditions. God was there too to be with them and to hear their songs of praise. Choosing this most unlikely of places to build a church shows His love for the downtrodden, the dispossessed, the disappointed, the discouraged which shines through in this story.
So yes, we will find that God is with us in the most unlikely places; in the muck and mire of our broken human relations as in the beauty of nature. God can be found everywhere, in everything and in every body, if only we open our eyes to look; and be assured we will not have to look too far. Indeed, the Psalmist asks the question: ‘Where can I escape from your spirit, where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I travel to the limits of the east, or dwell at the bounds of the western sea even there your hand will be guiding me, your right hand holding me fast.’ Psalm 139:7-10 NRSV.
Does that sound a bit eerie; a bit frightening? Is God following me, watching me at every turn? I don’t want to offend him but I am only human and so I do make mistakes, get things wrong occasionally. Well, quite often really. Will he understand and forgive me? Yes, He will, because our God is not an authoritarian God who is sitting up there in heaven waiting to punish our every wrongdoing. He is there to hold our right hand to guide and to support us through life. When we stumble along the rocky path he is there to pick us up. Remember that Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit, the Counsellor, the Spirit of Truth, would remain with us and will be in us. (John 14:16-17). Take comfort too that God’s love for the whole of His Creation is unconditional, we do not have to earn it, or deserve it. How reassuring is that? God understands our human frailties and will forgive us because He loves us unconditionally and here I want to offer a word of warning; this is not some ‘get out of jail free’ card. Earlier I referred to the book of Genesis Man is made in God’s image. Now, if God loves us unconditionally we, the God within us, should love Him in the same way. But how do we do that? Once we have seen our Lord, as he heals, teaches, includes, consoles, and loves us, we are changed. And, once we’ve been loved, we are able to love one another as God loves us. As Jesus taught us: This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. John 15:12. KJV. That is what we are called to do; to love one another as God loves us.
So, where did you find God today?
Sadly, in this country, whilst churchgoing used to be a habit of the majority, it has become a hobby of the few. Organised religion seems, to many people, to have lost its relevance to modern living. It is distrusted and discredited in their eyes. Many people, including growing numbers of once faithful church goers view Christianity as a religious institution and reject it. If you asked the man in the street where he saw God today I suspect the answer would be on the lines of: “I don’t believe in that superstitious mumbo jumbo. It’s for the old fogeys who like to put on their Sunday best to go to church and feel superior to the rest of us. If your God is so loving and merciful, as you say he is, why did he inflict this coronavirus pandemic on us? And if you tell me he didn’t, then why did he not do something to stop it? Why? I’ll tell you why. Because he doesn’t exist! Now go away and stop bothering me.”
Since the pandemic has devastated the whole world bringing suffering, and in some cases death, to so many people, whilst many have lost their jobs, their homes, their loved ones, you can understand why he might say this. And as I write these words on Holy Saturday I am reminded of another name for this day – the day of absence. The last year or so has felt like one long Holy Saturday; Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah is dead, horribly crucified on Good Friday. He has gone, left us alone. ‘He descended into Hell’ as we repeat each time we pray the Apostles Creed. This all seems to confirm the anguished cry of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) “God is dead! God is dead! And we have killed him!” Some years ago Cardinal Ratzinger, as he was then wrote a meditation on Holy Saturday, in fact he wrote three but I will quote from just one. He reminds us of the Gospel story wherein Jesus is asleep in a boat which buffeted by a storm is about to sink. He wrote:
‘God sleeps while his very own are about to drown –is not this the experience of our lives now? The disciples cry out in dire desperation and shake the Lord to wake him but he is surprised and rebukes them for their small faith. But are things any different for us?’ Once the storm has passed we will realise our stupidity in thinking that God has abandoned us.
He is with us now as he always has been and always will be. He has promised that: ‘He will never leave or forsake you.’ Deuteronomy 31:8 Now let us be clear the Cardinal did not say that Jesus did not die on Good Friday but simply slept. He was using this Gospel story to illustrate our own lack of faith. This I think is the whole crux of the matter. Without faith in God we can never acknowledge him, never see him. Yet faith can be fallible, we are, after all, only human. Indeed, even Thomas, one of Jesus’ closest companions had his doubts. You will remember that Jesus asked him: ‘Do you believe because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.’ John 20:26. Yet too often we say as the boy’s father said: ‘I believe Lord. Help thou mine unbelief’ Mark 9:24
So let me ask you that question again. Where did you find God today? Perhaps you have received a phone call from a long lost friend or a kind word from a neighbour or maybe a stranger. Now we are able to mix a little more there will be even more opportunities to witness God in our everyday lives. And here is just one other example; one which more than one of you will expect me to use. Last week I mentioned that I had spent some time working in the garden. Some years ago we planted daffodil bulbs in the front lawn so that each year at this time we, and anyone passing by will see ‘a host of golden daffodils…. Fluttering and dancing in the breeze’ as Wordsworth put it. Yes, God is there in the garden, too.
So our task this week is twofold. Firstly, to ask ourselves each day, where did I see God today and to give thanks for it, but secondly to show God to others in our lives and actions so that ‘they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven’ Matthew 5:16 AKJV
On Palm Sunday we remember the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, thus fulfilling the prophecy: Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Zechariah (9:9) NIV. The disciples who had followed Him over the last three years had seen the miracles and the healings he performed and heard his teachings. They accompanied Him into the city enthusiastically shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”Matt21:9 NIV. To those who had seen Him raise Lazarus from the dead there was no doubt that, if he could do that, he must be the Messiah who would overthrow the Roman oppressors and return Israel to the glory days of King David when Israel was an important kingdom, a force to be reckoned with. But, as we now know, it didn’t work out as they had expected. Within a short period of time the man they had hailed as Messiah had been crucified as a common criminal, and things returned to normal, just as they always had been.
Fast forward 2000 years and we find that just like the followers of Jesus on that Palm Sunday we are all looking forward to the future with hope for a better world. After all, in the UK the vaccination programme is going well and the government restrictions are being cautiously lifted. It looks as if things will soon return to normal. But what will the new normal look like? Will it be a return to the old ways, where I can say “I don’t need to abide by your rules now? I can please myself where I go and with whom I can mix. If I want to go on a foreign holiday I will do so regardless of the risks of coronavirus in that country. I’ve been vaccinated so I’m all right. The fact that despite vaccination I can bring the virus back into this country to infect people here is not for me to worry about. In fact, if the Prime Minister’s chief adviser can break the rules by travelling 600 miles to see his family there is no reason why I shouldn’t.” What you will notice here is the number of times the word “I” is mentioned. What seems, sadly, important is “Me” holding the view that, “I will do it my way and you can’t judge me because I know my rights!” That sounds to me like a return to the old “normal”. Is that the future in store for us? Or can we live a different, a new “normal”? What would that look like?
Let us return for a moment to the Gospel story of Palm Sunday. The Jews did not recognise that Jesus was the Messiah they had been expecting all these years, because they were not looking forward, but back to the old glory days. But those days had gone forever as they would discover 50 years later when city of Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans. What they failed to understand was that Jesus came to bring in a different kind of kingdom, an upside down kingdom perhaps, but still a kingdom foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament. ‘The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.’ Isaiah 11:6-7 NIV. But the concept of a kingdom like this was alien to them at the time. It just would not work! Would it? After Pentecost Peter and the other disciples began to explain to the Jews and subsequently to all nations that kingdom like that was not only possible but was indeed the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, a kingdom embracing the whole world. In due time Christianity swept the world being taken up by peoples and nations down the centuries. However, we still do not seem to have grasped it. Like the Jews on Good Friday 2000 years ago we still tend to look back to how things used to be in the ‘good old days’ rather than forward to something new.
Now, one feature that has been remarkable during the pandemic has been the kindness and the compassion of others. The examples are endless but let me remind you of a few. We all remember the tireless self-sacrifice of NHS doctors and nurses, the scientists developing vaccines in record breaking time, the extraordinary fund raising of Captain Sir Tom Moore and others for the NHS and for the welfare of others. We remember too, those working in shops supplying foods and medicines, our neighbours and friends who have offered to fetch shopping or collect medicine or just phoned for a chat. Whilst face to face contact with friends and family has been impossible, the internet, especially Zoom has proved invaluable for keeping in touch. And as Pope Francis says in ‘On Hope’ ‘Compassion is to endure with the other, to suffer with the other, to draw near to the one who is suffering. A word, a caress, but given from the heart; this is compassion, for the one who needs comfort and consolation. This is more important than ever. Christian hope cannot do without genuine and concrete charity.’ This compassion for others is a vital element in building the Kingdom Jesus came to establish on this earth, because that Kingdom is a community embracing the whole of God’s Creation. As the Body of Christ, and thus stewards of God’s Kingdom, we are called to build on the love and compassion for our fellow humankind shown during the pandemic. It is up to each one of us to work together so that with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we may help to build the New Jerusalem here on earth in preparation for the time when He will return to unite heaven and earth as He has promised and as we pray every day: ‘Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’. The words of Anglican Dismissal after Sung Eucharist that we hear each Sunday sum up our duty: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
So, get up from that comfortable chair in which you are sitting and do something to follow that command. Right now!
There has been a lot of controversy recently over the possible side effects of one of the coronavirus vaccines currently in use. Does it cause blood clots? Is it effective? The World Health Authority says “Yes, it is safe”, pointing out the very low numbers of those suffering from this particular side effect, whilst some European Governments are suspending its use pending further investigations. As many people have already received this vaccine and are awaiting the second dose, this is very concerning to them, and indeed rather frightening. Who can they trust? The WHO or their government? Who can they turn to for advice? What does the Bible say, for example?
In Acts 9:10-11 we read that in a vision the Lord appears to Ananias, a disciple working in the young church at Damascus. What God asks him to do would strike fear into the heart of any man even the most devoted Christian disciple: "Get up and go to the street called Straight and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.” Now, he might have been justified in saying: “You are joking aren’t you? This man has a warrant from the High Priests in Jerusalem to murder Christians here, and you want me to go to talk to him?”, but he doesn’t, he gets up as instructed, finds Saul lays his hands on his head and calls him brother. That took some courage! That Ananias responds to God’s call in the same manner as the young Samuel; “Here I am, Lord”, demonstrates the trust that he had in God. Not in his own human instincts but in God.
Here is a little story I wrote a few years back that I think illustrates why, like Ananias, we too can and must place our trust in the Lord:
‘Each year for the last few years a family of blackbirds has made a nest in the hedge along the end of our garden. As we hadn’t seen them this year we wondered if they had chosen to nest elsewhere. After all, there have been a number of magpies around here recently. Some people do not like magpies; noisy chattering birds with black and white plumage and a long tail quite unlike anything else in the UK. It is true that, their challenging, almost arrogant attitude has won them few friends, but as members of the crow family they are one of nature’s waste disposal experts. And, like every other creature on God’s earth they need to feed their young even if that does mean stealing the eggs or the young of smaller nesting birds. After all, they have the same right to existence as the blackbird, the robin, the blue tits or any other bird that feeds from our garden. Yet despite the threat from the magpies and indeed the other predators lying in wait for her to hatch her chicks we were delighted to see mother blackbird taking material to the hedge to make her nest yesterday. She trusted us enough to build a nest, lay her eggs and raise her young chicks here in our garden because she felt safe.’
As she trusts us not to disturb her nest so like Ananias, we can safely place our trust in the Lord. We can be confident that the doubts, the fears, the worries and the troubles which the magpies of this world represent can have no effect on us if we do. Since God loves each member of His creation unconditionally and so does not want any harm to come to them we can rely on the Wisdom of Solomon: ‘Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.’ Proverbs 3:5-6(KJV)
I was never much good at science at school. I was more interested in languages and literature; hence the large collection of books that fill the house now! I could explain the structure of a piece of poetry, iambic pentameters and the like, (not sure I could now!) but I had no idea how an internal combustion engine worked.
One lesson in physics did take my attention though, and that was the study of electricity. It is invisible, formless, cannot be heard or smelt yet contact with it will have an immediate effect on one, possibly life changing. It can power whole cities, just look at London lighting up the night sky whilst industry and commerce work at full capacity, homes are lit and heated, whilst meals cooked all at the same time. Yet it can also recharge a mobile phone or a heart defibrillator. How can such energy be harnessed to perform all these functions yet remain the same electricity? A more scientifically minded friend told me that something called a transformer is needed to reduce the voltage as required. I’ll take his word for it!
In Sunday’s Gospel reading we hear of the Transfiguration of Jesus. It, too, is a story about transformation. The event is also recorded in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels but our reading today comes from Mark who uses just seven verses to describe this transforming, life changing event. Let’s look at it little closer.
Mark starts the story with the words “Six days earlier”. So what happened six days earlier? Well, in previous verses of this chapter Mark describes Jesus questioning the disciples as to who they think He is. Peter rightly says He is the Messiah. Now there is a problem here for the word can mean Anointed One and at this time when Emperor worship was the accepted thing, kings and emperors would proclaim themselves in that way. In fact this is the type of Messiah Peter, and probably many of the other disciples, thought Jesus to be; a warrior king who would overthrow the Roman occupiers. That is why he was unable to understand what Jesus meant by saying He would suffer and die at the hands of the authorities. That couldn’t happen to the warrior king who was to restore Israel to its former glory! Maybe at that point the disciples began to wonder if they were right to be following this man. Was He really the Messiah promised by Moses and the prophets? Had John pointed out the wrong man? If Jesus was to suffer and die perhaps they should leave now before they too got caught up in the bloodshed.
The Transfiguration on the mountain changed all that. There, before their eyes and in the presence of Moses the Law giver and Elijah the greatest prophet of the Jews, Jesus was transfigured. He was the Messiah foretold by the prophets. The presence of Moses and Elijah was proof of that. If there was any doubt in their minds His divine nature was confirmed by the voice from heaven saying “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him!”
After hearing those words, everything appeared to return to normal. Moses and Elijah disappeared, Jesus resumed his human form and they all came down from the mountain to resume their journey to Jerusalem. Once again Jesus impressed on them not to say anything about what had just happened. As He explained to His mother at the wedding at Cana his time had not yet come. He wanted to keep His true identity secret until the appropriate time. At Calvary on Good Friday He would say: “Consummatum est” – “It is finished”. His true identity had now been made vividly clear to everyone, even the centurion standing guard recognised Him as the Son of God (Mark 15:39).
Now, let us be clear as to what happened at the Transfiguration. It was the disciples who were transformed, not Jesus. He was transfigured which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means: ‘To alter the figure or appearance of; to change in outward appearance’. This did not happen to the disciples, their appearance did not change, they remained the same human beings they were created to be. Yet they were changed. They were transformed and that transformation meant that their faith was confirmed, strengthened so that they were able to carry out the mission God had given to them; to nurture and develop Christianity after His death.
So what is God saying to us?
In this passage I think we are being reminded to listen to that voice from heaven; God’s command to listen to His beloved Son. In today’s hectic noise filled life, with its 24 hour news bulletins and commentaries by ‘experts’, with instant communication via social media and our daily busy lifestyle we tend to hear but not pay attention to what is being said. We shut out the extraneous noise. Yet unless we really listen we may miss that small, still voice. The other day I read somewhere: “Sometimes we need to be nudged into recognising God in what we perceive as interruptions in our busy schedules. Sometimes we need to be knocked over.” That, of course is something that contact with electricity will do! For example, a heart defibrillator will often restart a faulty heart. And that is what we need, a radical change of heart. We must put aside the scramble for material wealth, power, privilege, social climbing…. The list goes on! By listening prayerfully to God’s word we are called to embrace God’s gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, and use them to make a difference to this world in which we live. And yes, people will notice a difference in us; in our transformed selves, by the way we think and act.
So you see, paying attention to my science studies did pay off!
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time employment for a number of years