A Short Sermon for Low Sunday

 Another guest post from my husband…

Acts 2:14a,36-41: 14 ¶ But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd,…………….. 22 “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23 this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25 For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. 28 You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29 “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

John 20.19-end: 19 ¶ When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 ¶ A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Sermon

 

While I was seeking inspiration for this sermon the news was full of only one thing; the royal wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton. The wedding was on every channel and dominated every newspaper.

 

It was like the world cup in reverse. All the women were glued to the tv. Admiring the dress, the finery and soaking up the romance. And the men were wondering around looking lost and aimless.

 

There were men fishing on the beach, with a few cans, that didn’t look as though they had gone fishing for quite some time. It can’t have been the weather – the sea breeze was cold despite the sun.

 

But the humour aside. I may not get excited about a wedding dress but I do wish the royal couple a long and happy marriage. What is important, isn’t so much the beautiful day but the days and months and years that follow.

 

I have prepared so many couples for marriage and sadly, for some it is all about the big day. And I mean ALL about the BIG DAY!

 

I have had one couple that split up at the reception and another on their honeymoon! Thankfully, those are extremes.

 

And I know of plenty of others that are strong to this day. It is wonderful when you marry a couple then baptise their children. Then, later, see those children at the local school. I have not had the privilege of preparing any of these children for marriage but I hope and pray that these couples will remain a stable foundation for their families to the end of their lives – just as they promised on their wedding day.

 

This is what I prayed for on Friday. That the joy of the day will be distilled into a lifelong commitment, through good and bad. Then I went to see if I could find my fishing rod! Well, in my case my bike keys!

 

A lifelong commitment through good and bad is what we are called to in Christ. Those first disciples had gone through so much and they would have to endure more in the years to come. They were faithful to Jesus, their friend and king.

 

But that doesn’t mean that it was easy for them. Thomas doubted from the beginning. Peter had already denied Jesus and the others had run away.

 

So when I doubt, when you doubt, that doesn’t mean that all is lost. It just means that we are human. It also means that the faith we have may be real and not a fantasy. Real faith is questioned and tested.

 

 

Now for us the dust of Easter has settled and we now learn again to live the Easter life. We continue our life as part of Christ’s bride the Church. Amid all the finery and pageant of Easter we made or reaffirmed our baptism promises. Our marriage vows to Christ.

 

You will be different from the time when you first made your baptism vows. You and I change and grow every day of our lives. Life’s experiences change us and we grow.

 

Christ continues to love us as we change, no matter what that change is.

 

Our task is to trust that love and try and learn to love Christ back whatever the world does to us. Whatever our doubts and failings. Christ does not turn away, even if you or I abandon him.

 

I may fail to keep my promises to Christ, so might you. We may be unfaithful but Christ is not. Christ, through the Spirit living in us, faithfully seeks to work in us – to make us good, and holy, and content: To make us whole and complete in Him.

 

Jesus says to you, “Peace be with you”. Jesus breathes on you saying “Receive the Holy spirit”.

 

Like the royal wedding, the pageant of Easter is over and now the hard work and the real joy begins.

 

 

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

 

Easter Day ~ He is Risen and walks among us

 Some years ago while attending an event in Leicester diocese, I saw Jesus walking in the crowds. The man was the actor who plays Jesus in the mystery plays (for more about him see the Being Jesus link) and had a really ineffable quality about him that got me thinking: what if Jesus really did walk among us and we simply didn’t know. If we made the assumption that he is indeed among us, would this change how we lived our lives?

I try to do just this.  

Jesus walks among us

 

I know he’s only an actor

Playing his appointed role,

But can I be the only one

Who felt my heart lift to see

Those sandaled feet among us,

The archaic robes shabby in sunlight

And the dark curls of beard

Twitch with a smile as he passed?

Am I the only one to ask

A terrified “What if?” and wonder

If it might truly be Him

Walking among the crowds,

Still alone and set apart

Even when thousands press round?

Of course, I know full well

He’s only an actor doing

What his role demands of him,

But still my heart sings

As my mind asks, “What if?”

 

What makes Good Friday, good?

 

What makes Good Friday, good?

 

Good Friday? What on earth makes such a day good?

Celebrating the hideous death of a good man, and the craven flight of his supposedly loyal followers?

Or the fact that we at the other side of the story know the ending?

Imagine how that day must have been for those involved. The disciples scattered, all their dreams and hopes in tatters, fearing for their own lives. Only a few, like Jesus’ mother, and John(according to some) daring to stay and watch, weeping as someone they loved died a slow and excruciating death; the rest hiding and quivering at every footfall that came near their door.

The veil in the temple was torn as Jesus died, torn in two against the weave of the cloth, and the sky became dark, if you believe the Gospels. It must have seemed that the world was ending, or was close to the end, to the friends and family who had seen the rise and the promise of Jesus’ ministry. Their own deaths would follow soon, hunted down by the authorities and exterminated as subversive vermin.

I’ve often thought about what Jesus himself felt, whether he knew the ending of the story, or whether, like his friends, he had no idea how things would pan out. I’m never sure how much accretion the Gospels contain, of things attributed after the event. But whatever the case, to go through death, and the cruel death by Roman-style crucifixion……the agony is beyond imagining. Few people will ever experience such pain, such anguish.

My own experience of pain and of internal anguish are tiny in comparison and yet, they give me a slight insight into the experience, which is the most anyone can hope for. My struggles with despair, depression and anxiety, are nothing and yet, they bring me the gifts of compassion and empathy. When I suffer my Good Fridays, as I do periodically, I never know for sure that there will be, this time, an Easter morning, that I will rise again. Experience and knowledge tell me there will be and yet, I doubt it. Each crisis is like the first, the only crisis, as I live through it. I try to record my passage through times like these in poetry and in prose in the hopes that I can remind myself of the promise of resurrection, and that others too might find hope in it.

Good Friday

(me to Jesus/Jesus to me)

Nail me to that cross again

Why don’t you?

You’ve done it before

And you’ll do it again.

Here, I’ll even hold

My hands out for you,

Pass the hammer,

Hold the nail steady.

Bang! It’s done,

All over, bar the shouting.

Long day, arms outstretched,

Breath ragged, pain white hot.

Sky darkens, night begins.

Death, a relief, a release,

The cool of the tomb

A simple comfort, unexpected

After the heat of the day.

Comfort too in acceptance

Of the inevitable, peace even.

Sleep now: the worst is over.

Maundy Thursday ~ calm before the storm and a sense of foreboding

 

Maundy Thursday ~ calm before the storm and a sense of foreboding

 

Some years ago now, I wrote a poem that still haunts my own memory, if that doesn’t sound too self-obsessed. I was walking home late at night after attending a Maundy Thursday vigil and as I walked through our quiet village, I smelled lamb cooking at the Indian takeaway and it set a train of thought running that resulted in me coming in and scribbling down the following prose poem.

Gethsemane Girl

It’s a still night, the warm air filled

With the hot greasy scent of a thousand meals.

Glad I didn’t have to cook tonight;

I know lamb is traditional but it seems so unfair:

That little life cut short just for us.

I shouldn’t be here; they said no.

He didn’t, of course; he never does.

But I’m here anyway.

Maybe he knows; they don’t.

Look at them, sleeping like babies!

He wasn’t himself tonight, seemed sad.

Someone said he’s paranoid,

Expecting betrayal at any moment.

Won’t be me”, that’s what Peter said.

He can’t help boasting but it’s sad.

He’s like a big hairy dog pretending to be brave-

One sniff of a wolf and he’d be off!

Anyway, I’m worried.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned,

It’s this: men can’t be trusted.

I shouldn’t be here: but someone should,

And since they’ve all dozed off

There’s only me, wide-awake in the bushes.

Nothing I can do but wait;

This mood of his will pass,

It always does.

But he does look so sad

And I wish-

But that’s not to be.

I’m so tired too.

I don’t know why I’m here;

I don’t understand half of what he says

But while he says it, it sounds so right.

Pity not everyone agrees.

If I close my eyes, just rest them, mind,

Just for a moment or two.

It’s been such a long day.

I won’t sleep, not like the others.

Not sleeping, just resting my eyes,

Just-

I’d been thinking about the other ‘actors’ in that drama so many centuries ago, wondering how they’d seen it all, living it moment by moment without knowing the eventual outcome. I identified with those shadowy figures that we hear mentioned and who played a pivotal role in the Easter story and yet whose own voices have never been heard. As I smelled the hot curry smell, I thought about the women who cooked and cared for Jesus and the disciples and started wondering what they had truly been thinking, that night before the Passover, so many centuries ago. We don’t know who they all were, Mary Magdalene is often suggested as one of the inner circle; she has always struck me as girl with resources and I began to wonder whether she would have sneaked after the disciples who were invited to pray with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.

So into that darkened garden I crept, my hands still slightly greasy with lamb fat and olive oil from the shared meal and my eyes heavy with tiredness. I knew things were changing, sensing the storm coming like a weather sense, and yet, hoping and hoping that nothing bad was going to happen.

While I wrote the poem some years ago, at the time, I could also sense changes coming, unable to pinpoint them. It took longer for the storm to hit, and my life to be altered beyond anything I imagined, but like Mary in that garden, I knew something was coming.

Now, six or seven years later, I approach Maundy Thursday with the renewed sense of something coming. It’s still far off, I think, but I can feel it, like a summer storm you can feel even when the sun is brilliant and there’s not a cloud to be seen except that dim dark line at the far horizon. I’m not sure whether this is good or bad coming, but change in any way is unsettling and shakes you up.

I’m trying to remember my Gethsemane Girl, hiding in the bushes and not knowing the end of the story, and trying to tell her, Be strong, it changes everything beyond what you ever imagined possible.

 

A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent ~ asking the whys and finding a way

Another of my husband’s sermons. If you wish, skip the Bible readings and go straight to the sermon itself. 

 

Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7: 15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 ¶ And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

1 ¶ Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 ¶ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Romans 5:.12-19: 12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Matthew 4.1-11: 1 ¶ Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Sermon

I looked at this morning’s readings and everything seems so simple and straightforward.

I read that Eve gave in to the tempter, the serpent, Adam sinned and ever since all people have suffered and all people die.

Then I read that Jesus the second Adam came, took our punishment, died and everything is now OK.

This is how the Gospel is sometimes explained. Nice, simple and neat.

Choose Jesus and live – stick with Adam and die.

But I have chosen Jesus. I have stuck with Jesus and everything is not OK! I am not OK. You see this sort of simple explanation can be useful, but the reality is always far more complicated. St. Paul knew this, the Old Testament writers knew this, as did the Gospel writers.

This week I have seen pictures and heard stories of the horror, of the fighting in Libya. I have seen the pictures of the devastation in Japan. You must have seen the same.

If I take this simple idea of salvation; if I take it literally; I should say that all those people killed in Libya, in Japan have gone straight to hell, at least all those that weren’t Christians.

If I stick to this simple idea; I should say that it was just and right that they should all die, they had clung to Satan’s lies and they had paid the price for their choice. A simple, straightforward and brutal truth.

But I can’t.

I can’t do that. I see those people and I weep for their suffering – I can’t help myself. I pray to loving God I know to be with the survivors, and helpers – that God may give them some comfort and the strength that they need.

I cannot accept that the God who cared so much about the world to send his Son into it and to die here, would abandon those people.

I cannot accept that the God who loves all of us, would just kill over a thousand people, on a whim, grab their frightened and confused souls, … and just throw them away, like rubbish, into hell.

It must be nice to be a fundamentalist, or at least life must be pretty simple. But I refuse to be taken in by neat, simple answers that don’t fit the facts.

So let’s wipe the slate clean. Lets start again.

I start by admitting my ignorance.

I admit that I don’t know why that earthquake happened. I know a little about the earth shifting, a little about the physics behind earthquakes and tsunami but I can’t give you, or anyone else, a reason why it happened now, to those people.

I suspect that there isn’t an answer to that question, even that that is the entirely the wrong question to ask.

Then admitting my ignorance, I move on to what I do know. I read the our Old Testament reading and I know that God created me, everyone and everything. I know that what might have been idyllic is so no longer. That this world is no longer perfect. I also know that some of our problems are of our own making.

So I know that God cared enough to create us and our world and he still cares enough to keep it running, even though it seems far from perfect. God still cares enough to stick with us, even though we fail to do what is right, again and again.

Then I look to our New Testament reading, and I see that God is not only putting up with us. I realise that God loves me, you and everyone. That he loves us so much that he sent Jesus to pull us out of the pit we have fallen in to. Jesus came to save us from ourselves and all that is wrong with this world, and at great cost.

So now I can look up from the individual trees, the narrow arguments and see something of the forest, the overall picture of God’s saving action in history.

The Bible tells us that God loves those people in Japan. God wants the best for them and for their families and for their land. God’s love is universal. We are called to see everyone as our neighbour, and to love them as ourselves. Why, because that is what God is like.

We become Godlike when we love. So our love and concern should reach out to those people in Japan.

Through the God who is everywhere, in everyone, we are linked to those people. Over all those miles between us we can join our tears with there tears; we can know God’s power to give us strength and hope in times of trouble, and we can pray for the same for those people in Japan.

Prayer is a mysterious thing, but it is powerful. In prayer we enter the presence of God, we share our fears and distress, as well as our joys and happiness. In God, through prayer we are in some way linked to the object of our prayer, the people we see in Japan. We can join with God in sharing their pain. We can join with God in bringing hope.

So we should pray, and pray hard.

We should also act, if that is possible. Sometimes we have the opportunity to do more than pray. Sometimes, we can step in and help those that suffer. Sometimes we can sent money.

Sometimes , when the trouble is nearer to home, we can join with God in practical caring for the sick and the distressed. We can sit with the bereaved. We can hold the hand of the sick or the dying.

We can cry with those that cry and laugh with those that laugh – any one who has spent time with the bereaved will know that the pain can make people cry and even scream out, but the next minute they can be laughing at some silly thing their loved one used to do; then the laughing may turn without warning to tears once again.

In being a part of this world; in not hiding ourselves from its joys and its sorrows, we are like our God who sees and feels all.

In our prayers for the people in Japan we come closer to the God who already cares for them. We stand with our Jesus who weeps over the loss of life, as he wept over Jerusalem.

So, finally, I want to turn to our Gospel reading: The temptation or testing of Jesus.

First, Jesus was tempted and so we will be tempted too.

Second, Jesus overcame his temptation and so we can overcome too.

Third, to save himself Jesus turned to his Bible and his Jewish tradition, as well as to his personal knowledge of God, his Father.

So just as I have tried to do this morning, we can overcome our temptations by looking to Scripture, to our Christian tradition and to our own experience of the God of love.

Weeping with the people of Japan is a reminder of our weakness and need of God, and of the power of God to save. So perhaps weeping for Japan, for Libya, the pain around us and our own failure, is a good way to begin our lent.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

The Comfort of Ashes ~ an Ash Wednesday poem

 

The Comfort of Ashes

There’s something clean about ashes;
Rubbish reduced to uniform powder.
No heaps of trash to hurt the eye,
No rotting corpse to hurt the heart.
Clean
Simple
Impermanent.
A gust of wind, a wash of water
And it’s gone for good:
Dissolved
Dispersed
Disappeared.
It does not disturb me that I am such dust;
What the fire cannot touch
Never can be touched
By hand or flame or even eyes.
Let then the residual ash be blown
On the wind and be gone,
Returned to the kind earth
Whose bones gave me form
And let my soul go home unhindered.

The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.

 

The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.

I’ve had a couple of busy weeks at work, both jobs, and I’ve enjoyed it mostly, even though some of it was stressful. But waking up this morning I felt the full weight of the default depression land on me like a big slobbery dog who’s pleased you’re back. All the petty concerns I’d put on hold while I was rushed off my feet came back and had a pity party in my head. My teaching job is currently in some jeopardy as they are moving premises and it’s going to be a lot harder to get to work; I’ve resolved that the first near miss as a car clips my bicycle signals me quitting. I love teaching, I really do; it’s one of my talents and in many ways, I am wasted where I work. If you’ve seen Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, it’ll give you a clue about my style of teaching; but it also means that even had I the correct bits of paper, I’d be sacked in a week in a state school. So I am on the sharp look out for a new job, one that is year round, and which doesn’t have the substantial drawbacks of my current one (of which I will not speak here)

But my return to sullen misery has woken me up to something that slumbers much of the time. That’s the realisation that even changing jobs, changing homes or whatever significant life change I might sometimes crave is only a distraction from my real work in this world. Six months into a new job, or a new location, and the same old issues come creeping back, like rats who realise the ship was not sinking after all.

That’s a bit of a scary realisation. It means that anything I pursue, success, fame, wealth, whatever holds no power to change anything internally. If I become a NYT’s bestseller, nothing changes. If I get the job that seems to fit every talent or skill, nothing changes. Oh for sure my mood might alter and improve, I might even be happy for a while. But nothing deeper changes.

You see, any real change has to come from within, not from anything external to me. I’ve never been someone who found retail therapy anything other than a disappointment, and while I have certainly chased success as willingly as any writer, I’ve started to grasp the fact that such success does not and cannot make me anything other than momentarily happy. I can see now that my lifelong pro-wrestling match with the Black Dog has saved me some expensive mistakes.

Chasing things because you believe that they may make you happy is a futile exercise, and one that frankly underpins the whole economy of the prosperous West. It is endless and caustic to the human soul, because it is tantalising and drives you on to seek more and more and more to less and less satisfaction, and eventual bitterness.

What then can bring peace to the troubled soul? What can tame the Black Dog and make it an ally and not an enemy?

Well, my current theory is that it is meaning that brings peace. It’s certainly how people survive the kind of catastrophic experiences that send many over the edge and down into insanity.

It’s only a theory but is one borne out by such luminaries as Viktor Frankl, and also by personal experience. I can accept and even value my own sufferings when I realise that they have shaped me to be the person I am now, and the riches of compassion and empathy that have been uncovered within me. They’ve made me a far less selfish person than I would otherwise have been.

Native Americans have a saying, something they speak as a prayer when they enter the sacred space of a sweat lodge. They say, “For all my relations,” as they enter, and by that they do not mean their mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters and so on. They mean every one of us humans, and all the animals and trees and plants, right down to the Stone People, the rocks we kick aside and split asunder.

So my prayer today, in honour of all that I have endured as a human and all that I will endure, is that it is done in honour and support of all life, all creation, and that I will find meaning in all.

For all my relations.”

Amen.