Preached by the Rev’d David Higgon – Sunday 27th August 2017
Jesus asked …who do you say that I am?’ Matthew 16 v 16
…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds … Romans 12.1-2
The woods behind our cottage are filled with mushrooms and toad stools to an extent I haven’t known for 10yrs and I have been out and about with my Mushroom and toadstool field guide, attempting to identify them.
Identifying mushrooms is complicated. To do it accurately you need a microscope but as I don’t have one, I rely on a book and a physical examination; does it have a ring and a volva , it’s habitat , under what trees does it grow, is it growing on dead wood, what is it size, its smell, its colour, does the colour change when you break the flesh, does it extrude a milky substance.
Knowing the difference between a horse mushroom and a yellow stainer could be the difference between a good breakfast or an emergency visit to Raigmore hospital.
When Jesus asked the question of his disciples “who do you say I am?” he was asking a really challenging question. If you think identifying mushrooms is difficult, then how humans identify themselves and each other is a lot more complex.
The questions ‘who do you say I am’ and ‘who do you say you are’ when addressed to the same individual could produce the same or similar answer but it seldom does. How others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves can be alarmingly different.
So, who do you say you are? Do you define yourself by your gender, your work or profession, your ethnic origins, your family your colour or your faith? For many of us its about place and people. It may be about your DNA, it may be about the way you speak.
For example, if you say toilet you may be classified as Non-U if instead you use the word lavatory. then you are U - meaning upper class.
I knew an eminent neurosurgeon from Leicester, who was a very U person. He identified himself as by his profession and his country where he was born. Where I met him he was prison number 345xyz. To the prisoners he identified as the Doctor because he would readily give them a medical examination that was better than what they could get from the prison medical centre.
To others he was a convicted drug dealer and probably now identified as an ex-con.
So what should define our identity and how should we present ourselves to others so that they see us as we see wish to see ourselves?
In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells us to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds
Paul’s letter to the Romans is a challenge to the community of faith in Rome as to how they respond to God’s act of divine love for the world through his Son Jesus Christ.
He is saying that the only true response to God’s love for the world in Christ, is transformation.
Herein is the possibility of becoming more fully aware of God’s purposes and making a difference in one’s relationships — and indeed an impact upon the wider world.
What does that mean to us as a community of faith today?
Could this mean being transformed by changing our perspective on the world perhaps,
by recognising the complex interweaving of all living things and the heavy impact we make as human beings on the natural world; by learning to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery and that we will never entirely understand and to recover that sense of awe that children have, that sense of the majesty of creation, and our ability to be worshipful in its presence.
It this is so, than we will need to abandon our arrogance and stand in humility and reverence before the world so that our species will be able to remain in the world.
Over the past couple of weeks An Tallas Solais has been running an exhibition called Murmurs that through art, workshops, talks and films explores climate change as it affects us here in Ullapool, whether through local weather patterns, the deep time of geology, or the complex interrelationship of humans and habitat.
It aims to tell a story that concerns us all and to encourage us to respond to that story.
I was attracted to the exhibition because I believe that questions of climate change are not be defined solely in terms of science and technology. They are as much about how we live and what we believe.
Art and faith therefore have an important contribution to make to how we view and respond to the challenges we face.
On Friday, I attended a talk by John McIntyre, a local ecologist on ‘Deep Time’, and in the discussion that followed, it struck me that the greatest challenge of climate change is not how we reduce our carbon emissions or how we reduce the amount of plastics in the sea, the greatest challenge is to change ourselves, to be transformed by rethinking our understanding of our relationship with God’s creation, to be changed by God’s holy spirit to be a living sacrifice in our world today.
The Gospel of Christ reveals the truth that we are in Christ and he is in us. Christ is at the heart of every living creature and organism. He is the light through whom all things were made. So in Christ we are not only reconnected to God through his death and resurrection but we are also re-connected to the whole of creation. Christ calls us back to God and he calls us to live in harmony with all that was made through him.
I recently came across a quote from an American Admiral
He said If you want to change the world start by making your bed, If you can’t do the little things right, you will never get the big things right
As Pope Francis expresses it as a need to return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack.”
Our identities are about people and places but they are also about how we live in relationship with those places and places as people who are a living sacrifice Holy and acceptable to God.
Or to put it more simply, - if you want to change the world, first make your bed.
Fr David's sermon from last Sunday
Jesus’encounter with the Canaanite woman comes at the end of a longer passage of scripture where Jesus discusses the nature of evil and the significance this encounter is often overlooked. It is one of Jesus’s healing ministries and is significant for that, but it also contains within it two other significant teachings of Jesus.
One is a lesson in how Jesus challenges our assumptions about people who are somehow different for us and calls us to respond to those people with love and generosity.
Secondly, it gives us a model on how we should engage with people who don’t share our faith, people of other faiths or no faith at all.
Jesus and the disciples were out of their own territory, in what we now know as Lebanon, in the coastal area north of Galilee. And They are approached by a woman – the woman is a Canaanite.
As a Canaanite, she was descended from the original people of that land, who were dispossessed by the Israelites. She is the equivalent of a present-day Palestinian.
The woman approaches Jesus shouting, and the disciples want Jesus to get rid of this annoying woman.
Jesus must have heard the woman shouting as well as his disciples but he ignores her and speaks to his disciples instead.
He says to his disciples ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel’. His mission is for the Jews, the lost sheep of Israel and not for anyone else and certainly not the Canaanite women and her daughter.
The disciples want Jesus to send the woman away – they see her as a lesser being than human, who is not worthy of attention.
Their own cultural and religious perceptions make them hostile to her. They are hostile to her because she was a Canaanite and also because she is a woman.
How dare a woman, indeed a Canaanite woman, approach Jesus yelling and crying.? The response of the disciples reveals a deed seated view of the position of women is their culture and the deep animosity between two peoples, Jews and Canaanites. .
A terrible example of hostility between peoples has been highlighted for me in the BBC’s reporting on the 70th Anniversary of the Independence of India and the Partition with Pakistan. The Partition of India and Pakistan that caused the migration of over 10 million people and in these terrible times hundreds of thousands of people from different religions were slaughtered..
The most disturbing thing for me was that people of different faiths who had lived peacefully along side each no longer saw themselves as neighbours and friends but were now identified according to their religions beliefs. and were now killing each other,
The aftermath of the partition 70 yrs ago is still felt today th us today in the deep suspicion and hostility between India and Pakistan and the periodic outbreaks of violence against religious minorities in both countries.
It is in a similar context of hostility between two peoples that this encounter with the Canaanite woman takes place. In our reading Jesus initially gives what might be the expected rabbi’s response, but the woman doesn’t go away.
The woman calls out like a beggar, “Have mercy on me!”
It is shocking for a woman and a Gentile to approach a rabbi. Jesus initially ignores her, he seems to be hardened against her cry and lacking is compassion. Its only when she kneels before him and says Lord help me that he engages with the woman.
Jesus, now enters into dialogue not only with a women which was almost unthinkable but with a woman who is not of his own religious or ethnic background.
When we come across Jesus having theological discussions with the religious leaders of his day, Jesus is the one who speaks with authority and greatest depth of wisdom.
But here the tone is different.
We see how respectful they are to one another. She acknowledges his background and heritage, referring to him as ‘Lord, Son of David’. She does not even deny the rights of the people of Israel as the focus for his message, but she claims something for herself as a person of faith.
Jesus for his part does not try to change her; but he engages a pagan woman in a theological discussion and takes her answer seriously. He responds to the woman’s initiative, with the words, is it right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs?
This in turn provokes a daring but humble response from the woman: God’s elect people are given bread, but even (we) dogs get some crumbs. Jesus sees this as an expression of faith – the woman trusts that the power of God works through Jesus, and that her daughter can be healed. How can he refuse her?
At the end of the encounter Jesus praises her faith and heals her daughter.
It is interesting that this is an account of a healing miracle but the miracle itself is not the focal point. It is the woman and Jesus engagement with her. And in doing so Jesus has shown his disciples what compassion means, and how he expects them – and us – to treat people who are different.
The disciples didn’t expect this, the disciples didn’t expect Jesus to heal and minister to people who were not Jewish,
For us I believe that we can use this encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman as a model for our own dialogue with people of other faiths – or none.
Jesus used parables and miracles to proclaim to the world what the kingdom of God is about and he called people to repentance of sin, to change from their own selfishness and prejudice to love, love for God and neighbour
Too often we see sin only in terms of personal morality but sin can also be about the assumptions we make about others; our own cultural and religious assumptions about people we perceive as being different from us
We sin too in the way we treat God’s creation as not something to love and to cherish but to exploit and use to our advantage, oblivious to impact it has on other humans and other species who share our common home.
Jesus uses this miracle to challenges our assumptions, calling us to respond with love and generosity to all . He also provides us was framework by which we can enter into dialogue with people of other faiths – or none
Pentecost 8 – 30th July 2017 – Proper 12 A
Text: “Have you understood all this?”
Be careful what you pray for people say sometimes – you just might get it…
That may seem like a strange thing to say but there is, of course, truth in it. Sometimes as Christians, the prayers just roll off our tongue and we perhaps don’t really think through the implications of what we are praying for or the process that may be involved if the things we pray for come to pass. Nowhere is that more evident, I think, than in the Lord’s Prayer which we say week in week out, perhaps some of you say it day in day out - and perhaps we don’t really think through the implications of the words we are saying.
The Lord’s Prayer is an incredibly powerful prayer with some dangerous and subversive statements in it and not least of these is the phrase, “Your Kingdom come…” What seems like a fairly pleasant and generalised plea to God is actually a subversive, counter-cultural, revolutionary request because it is a plea for the existing social order to be turned on its head and for the world to be governed and controlled by a new set of ethics and rules: for all social and political interaction to be transformed almost completely.
“Your Kingdom come…” Be careful what you pray for… Part of the problem is, of course, that we can so easily create Jesus in our own image. It’s comfy to think of him as meek and mild, perhaps a white man, gently strolling round the Israeli countryside, talking in happy metaphors about sheep, and lights on a hill, and performing wonderful miracles for his adoring crowds. We may find it uncomfortable to think of a man who looked a whole lot more like Yassar Arafat than David Beckham; a Palestinian tradesman, on the streets of what is now Gaza and the West Bank, a social revolutionary who was dedicated to denouncing the oppressive Jewish systems and challenging the authority of the occupying Roman army. But that’s Jesus of Nazareth: the Palestinian liberator speaking out against the forces of injustice, who was not afraid to say, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…”
“Your Kingdom come…” Be careful what you pray for… So in our Gospel reading today, Jesus gives a number of parables, beginning each one with the phrase, “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” and we hear that phrase and we settle back in the our chairs and we get ourselves comfortable, because we know that we are about to hear Jesus spin another pretty little story for us. No – it doesn’t work like that. When this Palestinian revolutionary says, “The Kingdom of heaven is like…”, a shiver should run up our spines. Because this Palestinian revolutionary has dedicated his life – and death - to taking us right outside our comfort zones and confronting us with the harsh reality of Truth.
So when He talks about the mustard seed, in which the tiniest of seeds grows into this massive shrub, we find that comforting, don’t we? Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, telling us that big things can come from small beginnings. We link it to Jesus’ saying that we are to have faith like a mustard seed and we think therefore that it’s OK to only have a little bit of faith because that will be enough. So we can all relax. We don’t need to work particularly hard at being a Christian. We don’t need to devote ourselves too much, because Gentle Jesus has told us that a little bit of faith is perfectly adequate. But Gentle Jesus didn’t tell this parable. This parable was told by Jesus, the Palestinian revolutionary who was prepared to live and die to see a new world order come in to being.
What would the Palestinian masses have heard when Jesus told them this parable? They would have heard a story about a mustard plant, which was an invasive plant, going deep into the soil – a bit like bracken in our part of the world. They would have picked up on the real threat in this story. Because the sower plants the seed, perhaps in desperation and out of his poverty, in the hope that it might produce something usable very quickly. But there is also the danger that the mustard plant will grow and grow and invade the rest of the soil and take over that part of the landscape, making the soil unusable for any other form of vegetation – a lot like bracken. And, of course, that invasive property is exactly what Jesus wants to highlight because his mustard seed becomes great enough for the birds to come and nest in it. The Kingdom of God, for Jesus the Palestinian revolutionary, is completely invasive - but it will grow and grow and will invade the land and eventually become a sanctuary for others – not just us.
And if we have not yet got the point about the Kingdom of God being threatening, uncontainable and invasive, Jesus the Palestinian revolutionary follows it up with another little story in verse 33: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Ah, the Great Israeli Bake Off…now we know what Gentle Jesus is talking about! The woman in her kitchen, kneading the dough whilst her children play around her, the lovely smell of freshly baking bread hangs in the air, perhaps the kitchen door is opening out onto a lovely little garden where the husband sits and reads his newspaper with the faithful family dog sitting at his feet. An idyllic family scene – a comfortable image for us – from Gentle Jesus. But Gentle Jesus didn’t tell this parable. This parable was told by Jesus, the Palestinian revolutionary, who was prepared to live and die to see a new world order come in to being.
So what did yeast mean to the first hearers of this parable? Well, of course, yeast was to be avoided at the most holy times of the year: Unleavened Bread was the order of the day. And elsewhere, Jesus used the symbol of yeast to describe the behaviour of the Pharisees. For those people who lived in an agricultural, even nomadic culture, yeast was pretty hard to handle. It was unpredictable, it bubbled up, it oozed, it collapsed, it grew again. So again, Jesus is not giving us a neat and comfortable image here: the Kingdom of Heaven is unpredictable. It has a way of bubbling up from within and completely transforming the environment in which it grows. And the effects of the seed and the yeast will do what it wants to do: the sower and the baker can’t control them – and that’s what can happen when we commit to being part of the Kingdom of heaven. But Gentle Jesus didn’t tell this parable. This parable was told by Jesus, the Palestinian revolutionary who was prepared to live and die to see a new world order come in to being.
Instead, He prepares us for a kingdom that can be as messy and ugly as it is beautiful, verse 47: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, and sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.” When the fishermen cast out their nets in the Sea of Galilee, they were primarily wanting to catch three types of fish: sardines, barbels, and musht. These were the staple fish diet of the population and would have been considered the only fish worth catching. But the truth is, of course, when the nets were drawn back to shore, they wouldn’t just have been full of sardines, barbels and musht. There were 23 species of fish in the Sea of Galilee at that time. So alongside the sardines and barbels and musht, their nets would have been full of cat-fish and anchor - both considered unclean to the Jewish people - and eels and shellfish and all sorts of others too. So the trawl of the net would bring together the clean and the unclean, the good and the bad, and the task of the fisherman was to separate them out and make them ready and presentable for the market place. Jesus knew about fishing and that it was a messy business – but He also knew that it is in all the mess that the best and the greatest treasure is often found.
“Your kingdom come…” Be careful what you pray for - because the Kingdom of heaven is like that proclaimed by Jesus, the Palestinian revolutionary, not like some imaginary Gentle Jesus, meek and mild. It’s subversive and it’s messy, and it can take us way out of our comfort zones. Jesus, the Palestinian revolutionary walked the streets of Israel. He walked the streets of Gaza and the West Bank. And when He saw social injustice and oppression and marginalisation, he spoke out against it. His was a subversive ministry – his was a messy ministry – and the better and more memorable for that.
Jesus was a Palestinian revolutionary who was prepared to die for the liberation of His people because He knew that the coming of the Kingdom of heaven was the ultimate goal of liberation. That was the mission of Jesus of Nazareth, and it’s that that we’re invited to be part of as His Church. It might turn out to be uncomfortable, it’s sure to be messy and not fit in with some of our pre-conceived ideas - but that’s the Kingdom of heaven for you. If we’re going to carry on and hand on those ideas, then we need to pray, “Your Kingdom come”. But be careful what you pray for…
Sunday 23rd July 2017 – Pentecost 7
(preached by Fr Nicholas Court, Rector)
Text: 'This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven'.
Some of you know that I spent two years on the staff of Llandaff Cathedral in south Wales. It was a great privilege to be involved in the day-to-day running of such an ancient and revered building, along with the busyness of serving the local parish, community and schools. Although its foundation was somewhere in the dark ages, the Cathedral had undergone a number of additions and improvements over the centuries. One such alteration was prompted on 2nd January 1941 by a Luftwaffe pilot unloading his left-over bomb onto the cathedral’s graveyard as he headed for home having bombed the docks at Cardiff. In effect, it lifted the whole building, and set it down again, leaving the architects needing an urgent rethink of the structure to make it safe and serviceable once again.
And so, Llandaff Cathedral is a bit of a hotchpotch of styles and designs, from the massive Christ in Glory – an imposing aluminium statue of Jesus by Jacob Epstein, set centre-stage and mounted on a huge reinforced concrete arch, to a number of hidden and more ancient gems. Like many medieval Churches, Llandaff Cathedral once had a screen where that arch now stands, and on top of it there would have been a rood – that is, the scene of Good Friday – a bigger than life-size crucifix, with the Virgin Mary and St John stood either side of it. You can see this in many ancient and even some Victorian Churches to this day. But such screens had a somewhat chequered career. In the reign of Edward VI, when England became a protestant country, things changed. All across England and Wales there was the sound of splintering wood and shattering glass as the statues of the saints and the stained glass windows came crashing down. And down too came many of those roods, those great crosses in our churches.
Then, Edward VI died and Queen Mary came to the throne. She was a Catholic and saints and roods were suddenly back in fashion. The order came that they must be restored. Now that was a problem, crosses and the statues take time and they cost money. In the village Church in Ludham, in Norfolk, they solved the problem rather neatly. They didn’t make a new cross or carve a new Christ; instead they boarded up the chancel arch and then painted it with cross, and Mary, and John, and for good measure two angels, and a soldier with a spear. You can see them there still, and, with them one more figure. There, forever worshipping at Christ’s Cross is the benefactor who paid for the painting. He had himself painted in, and so added himself into the story of salvation. Even then they had not finished at Ludham because Queen Mary died and protestant Elizabeth came to the throne. Crosses had to come down again. They had had enough at Ludham. They just turned the boards round and painted the royal coat of arms on the side you could see from the nave. At the altar the priest could still the catholic side – the scene of Calvary – along with that man who had crept in to join the story.
Now with thoughts of getting in on the story of salvation we turn to our first reading - Genesis and Jacob’s ladder. Let’s remind ourselves about Jacob. Before our story begins he has already cheated Esau out of his inheritance and then he has stolen Esau's blessing by dressing up in borrowed clothes to trick their blind father. After the story with the ladder, he will even wrestle with an angel. Here is a man who knows what he wants and knows how to get it. He is impetuous; he is ruthless, if he’d been around today, he would almost certainly have been the proud owner of an ASBO.
We meet Jacob in a point in his story when he is in trouble once again. He has been sent on a journey, away from his own people. He has been sent to Paddan-aram to get a wife. Everything depends upon this journey. If Jacob is to amount to anything, if he is to be anything he must have children. That is the way Genesis works. Genesis is the book of beginnings, and we need to know that the beginnings will lead somewhere. Only if Jacob has children will he understand that God's blessing is on him, only in his children will he leave a name behind him. On the success or failure of this journey hangs all that Jacob is or will be.
It is a breath-taking journey he makes, from south of the Dead Sea, through Israel and Syria, to the borders of Turkey. He is cut off from his family, and more importantly he feels cut off from God. All the places where he knew God are far behind him. Fifty miles into his journey he stops in the highlands north of Jerusalem. And there, as we all know, he falls asleep and dreams of a ladder set up into heaven. It is important to understand what is going on here. Jacob is the man who has plotted against his brother not once, but twice. Jacob plans - he arranges things. But now he is caught unawares. He has a vision of God in a place he has stumbled on by chance, a place where God is not expected, not known. Jacob is surprised and suddenly the world he knows is overturned. Against all the odds, in a wilderness, he finds that this is none other than the house of God. He names that place 'Beth-El', that means 'the House of God'.
So what do we learn from Jacob? Two things. Firstly, however competent and organised and determined we are, we are never fully in control. We all encounter moments - illness, heartbreak, poverty, whatever - when we are suddenly reminded that we are limited. As Christians, we believe we are created, not manufactured. Our beginnings and endings and many of the judgements made about us lie beyond our grasp. Take your life, for example. You had no say at its beginning; to that extent your life is not your possession. We live surrounded by communities of differing values and we do not have the last word on what we are and what we might become. A good deal of the on-going end-of-life debate at the moment is about our rights over ourselves and we are hearing important things said by those who face terrible illness – for instance, the parents of Charlie Gard. But the debate about assisted dying is not just about rights. It is also a conversation about power and possession; who owns a life, who decides when life is not worth living, and how? We have the power and knowledge to provide treatments we did not have even 20 years ago. But what if a treatment extends or intensifies suffering? In a similar way, the story of Jacob at Beth-El is a story about the limits of presumed power and possession.
Critics say that whilst Christians claim to believe in the after-life - as soon someone suggests an idea as challenging, for example, as assisted dying, it seems that we are in no hurry to get there. But we also know that human beings are fallible and often make terrible decisions about life and death, and the Cross is precisely the witness to that truth. After all, humanity tried to kill the love of God. Anxiety about assisted dying is not a knee jerk reaction that suffering is something you have to put up with. I think it may be rooted in anxiety about the way we make decisions. The Church is often called upon to comment upon questions about how we can treat life with reverence, how far we should go in doing so, and how we can better sustain the conviction that life is not just another possession?
The second thing we learn is to notice what Jacob then did at Bethel. In that strange and remote place Jacob saw something unexpected, and yet he felt somehow driven to putting a name to it. 'This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven', he says. Faith cannot know God. The best faith can do is to allow us to be surprised occasionally when it gives us a glimpse of God in other things, people and places. I daresay we would find it easier if faith could be worked out in a series of tasks we could tick, spiritual exercises to fit in between the shopping and the housework; but it isn’t like that. So, what does it mean to have a faith? It means you look forward in hope, it means you look around and pray, giving you permission to look back in forgiveness of yourself and others. Faith is the stubborn confidence that, despite some of the evidence, the future, present and past belong to God; and through that, we look out for signs of His presence. 'This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven'.
Let’s go back to the Church at Ludham, and the painting of Mary and St John at the foot of the Cross, and that cocky little benefactor watching the Lord of Life being put to death from his corner of the painting. Tempted to take ourselves too seriously, we can end up making ourselves the story. But the truth is, we come at life with empty hands, the same ones we’ll be holding out shortly to receive Holy Communion; and this is the limit of what we really know. The rest is amazing grace – God’s undeserved gift of Himself to us – enabling us to look about us in the ordinary things of this life, even here in this (makeshift) chapel, and realise that places are made holy by the re-membering of God’s love and care – sometimes in an unexpected encounter with a celestial ladder , or something as simple and ordinary as broken bread and outpoured wine - and that it is in these that we might just catch ourselves saying with Jacob: 'Yes - This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven. Surely the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it!’
Preached by the Rev’d David Higgon (Associate Priest)
Sunday 16th July 2017
Parable of the Sower
Jesus took the most ordinary aspects of everyday life and used them to teach the people about God’s kingdom. In the rural society of Jesus’s day, what more common image could there be than that of a farmer sowing seed by hand in a field?
This image of the farmer sowing seed by hand is not one we can readily associate with today in the ordinariness of our daily lives but with a little imagination we can cross the divide between then and now. Of course we may end up with an over romantic image of the farmer sowing his seed in the Mediterranean sunshine. The reality in Jesus’ day was that each family had to provide for itself from what they grew or caught, or go hungry - as it is for so many today. Our reality is that if we need food we plan a trip to Tesco’s.
Of course, farming methods have moved on from the time of Jesus. There is little arable farming, there is little growing of grain and cereal crops in the North West Highlands but in other places where they are grown, the use of modern agricultural techniques ensure that fields are well prepared, fertilised and seeded to minimise wastage and to maximise the yield from every acre planted. When crops are harvested the volume and quality are accurately measured to monitor the yield of the crop.
So the image of Jesus’ sower scattering seed by hand willy-nilly where the seed falls on paths and on poor ground as well as good would be regard as wasteful and a crass failure.
But could we read into this random method of sowing seed something of God’s generosity.?
When Jesus told this story he clearly saw the seed as a God’s word. And if the seed is God’s word, then the soil, the ground conditions are us as humanity, the people who receive God’s word.
God’s word is the seed that is planted into every human heart. And the sower of the seed is Jesus himself and those who would follow him. So once again we caught up in this loving interrelationship between us as humanity and God in Christ Jesus, where we are both recipients of God’s word and grace and at the same time sowers of God word through proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in what we say and do to love God and to love our neighbours.
The good news is that God’s word isn’t reserved only for those who are considered to be good soil, who produce the maximum yield. The seed is not only scattered on the good soil, it scattered on the path, the rocky soil, amongst the weeds as well as the good soil. God’s word is scattered and is given the freedom and opportunity to grow in the most unexpected places.
The seed is sown in the heart of humanity. It is sown in the hard hearted who lack compassion, who reject the word and resist the touch of God’s love.
Yet God still sows his seed there.
God’s word is sown in the shallow heart that turns away from God at the first-time sign of trouble. Yet God still sows his seed there.
The seed is sow in the hearts of those who are consumed by their own personal concerns, but they are not shunned by God, he still sows his word there.
I have known many who saw themselves as living in the wilderness, places where the ground is hard and rocky and full of weeds, but where God’s word was received with an open heart and where lives were transformed. While there are those who regard themselves as good ground who have never produced the yield that Jesus anticipated for the seed that would fall on good ground.
God’s word, the seeds of the sower, are revealed to us in scripture; it is also revealed to us in creation around us and it is revealed to us in our relationships. Our relationships with each other, with our neighbours and with God.
Many of our contemporaries view God’s word, especially as it is revealed in scripture as being simply a set of rules that tell those of us who are bothered about it , what to do to be rewarded and what to do to avoid punishment. But God’s word is far more than a set of rules that some use to judge and condemn. God’s word is the Good News of Jesus Christ, revealed to us scripture and the life of the world. It is the freedom and life that is given to each of us through the generosity of God’s love and his grace in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and this generous outpouring of love and grace is offered to everyone, irrespective of the condition of their hearts.
Christ came to those who were considered to be the outcasts of their day, the ones thought of as being poor soil shunned by those who considered themselves to be the good soil of their day.
Yet the background to this parable is the lack of receptivity that Jesus meets. Many who heard him did not repent (Matthew 11.20-24); others set out to trick him, creating an opportunity to accuse him (12.9-14); some had become ‘hard of hearing’ as far as the message of the gospel was concerned (13.14-15). Almost without exception the people who reject Jesus were the ones who considered themselves as the good soil of their day; but it was the outcasts who were receptive to the words of Jesus, they were the good soil, the ones who hear the word and understands it, who bears fruit and yields a bumper harvest.
The yield of the harvest isn’t measured by how many people attend church. The yield of the harvest is in those who though our faith in Jesus, come to know something of God’s love for them, who come to understand God’s word in that they know they are no longer judged, condemned and excluded, and who come to realise they are each known and loved by God. The yield of the harvest is measured in faith hope and love.
Sunday 2nd July 2017 – Pentecost 4 Year A
(preached by Fr Nicholas, Rector - at Ullapool & Achiltibuie)
Text: God said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ (Genesis 22:2)
A man was walking along a narrow path, not paying much attention to where he was going. Suddenly he slipped over the edge of a cliff. As he fell, he grabbed a branch growing from the side of the cliff. Realizing that he couldn’t hang on for long, he called for help.
Man: Is anybody up there?
Voice: Yes, I’m here!
Man: Who’s that?
Voice: The Lord.
Man: Lord, help me!
Voice: Do you trust me?
Man: I trust you completely, Lord.
Voice: Good. Let go of the branch.
Voice: I said, let go of the branch.
Man: [After a long pause] Is anybody else up there?
There are few instances in life when we can trust someone utterly and without holding back. One exception is perhaps when two people get married. They let go gladly of the branch (or branches) which may been the mainstay of their life thus far. It’s a risky business, but often in order to set out on a new course in life, you need to do one of the most counter-intuitive of things – trust yourself to another person or to another set of principles. But as long as the branch is holding, why not stay where you are! This is what happens in marriage, as the two people getting married say to each other some pretty scary words: “All that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you”.
Of course, trust is so often built on experience. The more often our trust turns out to be well-founded, the more we’ll commit to it – and do so gladly. But often in matters of faith, it takes a special sort of trust. Abraham is held up to us as an example of this special sort of trust, but how can we believe that the God who is love could ask someone as trusting as Abraham to go on a journey at the end of which he is expected to kill his only son, and then offer him as a burnt offering? The barbarity of it is perhaps what strikes us initially, but then we are struck more forcibly by Abraham’s apparent compliance with the idea. It doesn’t make any sense either that anyone would take such a request on trust, or that such a terrible instruction could be construed as God-given. None of it makes sense. So, what’s going on?
Perhaps we first have to ask what we mean when we say that the holy scriptures are divinely inspired. I expect many of us struggle with that as a starting-point, because we then have to say what we mean by divine inspiration in this context. “This is the word of the Lord”, we say at the end of our readings; but we surely don’t expect anyone to agree that incitement to kill one’s offspring is alright simply because we say “This is the word of the Lord” afterwards. (We might occasionally be tempted to end our readings with a questioning upwards inflection – “This is the word of the Lord?”) I remember my Aunty Joan telling me that the nuns who taught at the convent she went to would not let the girls in their care read the Old Testament. They deemed it a book most unsuitable for young ladies to read! And when you read chapter 22 of Genesis, you can perhaps understand why. The majority of the books of the Old Testament are full of the recounting of the most appalling violence and unspeakable behaviour, but it is also touched by moments of utter sublimity and profound glimpses of God. Which are which? you might ask.
What about the story of Abraham? Is it alright to read the Old Testament as something other than a history book? Is it alright to read the Old Testament as a book which is allegorical in places, with stories that are not there simply for our mimicry, but as warnings and tales of caution? Can it even be that something which we call ‘the word of the Lord’ can be understood in a variety of ways, acknowledging its authors’ uses of a careful intertwining of myth, story and saga as well as what we might call journalistic reporting of actual events? I think I would say ‘yes’ to all of those propositions, and not many centuries ago I might have suffered the same fate as Isaac for saying so – but without the last-minute reprieve!
I think the question the story in Genesis 22 tries to pose - and tries to get its readers thinking about - is a question without a proscribed answer. That question might be something like: “How far would you trust God in your life?” When the really momentous decisions come along, how do we know we can trust God to lead and guide us? The story of Abraham and Isaac has a satisfactory ending, if not a particularly edifying or happy one. Sometimes people feel hurt or side-lined by decisions we might make in good faith. We aren’t told what this did to the father-and-son relationship following this incident perhaps because that’s not the question the author wants us to ask. Sometimes stories are exactly what they are – no-one would claim that the parables Jesus told weren’t true because the stories weren’t the recounting of actual historical events. It’s very often the questions thrown up by those parables and by many of the Old Testament stories which make them so much more powerful – and their power lies in the answers and the issues those questions make us face.
I think the issue of trusting is perhaps one of the greatest challenges Christians and all people of faith face in the modern world, where there may not be one Christian answer to life’s bigger questions. So, does the story of Abraham’s near-sacrificing of Isaac help? Perhaps the most powerful thing it does is to hold up a mirror to ourselves, and asks “What are the limits and parameters you would use to discern what is God-sent and trustworthy – and how far would you go?” Perhaps this story might help – one that perhaps you already know - about the great showman and high-wire walker Blondin, who tight-rope-walked across the great chasm of Niagara Falls. As he reached the other side, the crowds watching him burst into uproarious applause. When the noise died down, he turned to the crowd and asked them if they thought he could make the return journey. “Yes! Yes!” they all cried. “And to make matters more difficult, I’m going to do it pushing this wheelbarrow. Do you think I can do that?” “Yes! Yes!” came the response from the crowd; and when the cheering had died down, he said: “So, can I now have a volunteer to sit in the wheelbarrow?” There was a deathly hush, and not a person moved!
Corpus Christi Sunday – 18th June 2017
(preached by Fr Nichols Court, Rector)
Text: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”
I wonder if any of you have seen the film “The Last Emperor”. It’s hard to believe it’s thirty years since this amazing film was first released. It was a different world in the 1980s – politically speaking – and it was a brave film in many ways to make in those days. It chronicled in a very dramatic way, the final days and fall of the imperial family in China in the early 20th century, brought about to a large extent by the cultural revolution which came with the rise of communism and of Chairman Mao Zedong. In one of the scenes towards the beginning of the film, it shows the young emperor being carried in a palanquin through the streets of the imperial city, and ahead of him there runs a palace official warning people to turn their faces away so that they do not set eyes on the emperor. His godlike status meant that it was not right or fitting for the common people to look at or upon him, and so – as he passes by – the people shield their faces, turning to face the wall. In the culture of their time, this was clearly a mark of respect reserved just for the imperial family, but for many of us in our modern western world, to turn one’s back is regarded as quite the opposite. (The phrase ‘to turn one’s back’ has become an expression of disagreement or of disapproval of a person or of something they have done – far from respectful).
When I was being prepared for Confirmation – and certainly in my religious up-bringing thereafter (as a rather conservative Anglo-Catholic) – I remember being told that we should keep our eyes lowered at crucial points in the Eucharist. One of these points was at the moment of the consecration of the bread and wine, when the priest repeats Jesus’ words over the Bread and Wine; and the other was at the elevation, when the priest raises the Bread of the Eucharist in the doxology at the conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer, as we all said (or sung) the great Amen. I am not the person I was all those years ago. Like most of us as we grow up and then start to grow older, we take what is of value from our pasts, but gradually start to weed out some of the things that we no longer find helpful or useful – things we have continued to do out of habit and nothing more.
Whilst I still think that good manners in Church is every bit as important as good manners in life in general, I have found that the emphasis that I once learned to place on certain elements of the practice of my faith have undergone review – some of it quite radical. Perhaps some of you have found yourselves doing this too. I said in a sermon a while ago that with each birthday I find myself ‘believing more and more deeply in fewer and fewer things’. That’s a quote I encountered in a book I was reading at the time, and it struck a cord in me – particularly because as we get older we’re supposed to become more and more set in our ways, and more and more conservative in our opinions.
The Eucharist is a case in point, and I wanted to say a few words about this today, on this Corpus Christi Sunday – a special day set aside to give thanks for the Eucharist. The presence of Jesus Christ in the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion is one of those things I find it easy to believe more and more deeply in as time goes by, and the idea that eye-contact with them should be avoided at the very point when this takes place, not at all helpful. Of course, I understand where this comes from – it’s a way of showing reverence for Christ’s presence among us. But whilst I get that, I think there are more appropriate things to be doing in the presence of Jesus Christ. By the time we get to the point in the service when the Bread and Wine has been taken, blessed, broken and then placed into our hands, we have prayed together, sung hymns together, heard the scriptures read and a sermon has been preached usually on those readings, and we have shared the Peace with one another. So we are involved not just in our own little worlds, but in the shared experience of worship.
What then unfolds in front of us is dramatic – in every sense of the word. The action of the Last Supper is acted out, and we are invited and drawn into that drama. Usually when I have the privilege of celebrating the Eucharist for the congregations in my care, I am struck that at the very point in the service when the I greet you with “The Lord be with you”, then “Lift up your hearts” - of how disengaged from the action some people appear to be. Perhaps, like me, you were taught years ago that it is not appropriate to sneak a peek at this point in the proceedings. What I see from where I am, behind the altar, is for the most part is the tops of peoples’ heads – not unlike the scene in many a restaurant or café where there is a family or group of friends who have presumably gathered to share time together, but all you can see is the tops of their heads because their eyes are firmly fixed on something else - their mobile phones - checking the latest piece of mustn’t-miss news on Facebook probably!
If we had the space in this chapel, what I would love to have is a screen which everyone could see, and remove the hymnbooks and service books. We sing better and with more conviction – and there is a greater feeling of togetherness – if our heads are raised when we sing rather than buried in a book. And the same goes for when we worship together in other ways during this service. The Eucharist is not something that happens in black and white on the page of a book; yes – the words may be there on the page, but the event is happening before our eyes, and so often it is missed.
So, I am going to invite you to try something of a challenge this morning. Be daring! Go on! When the Eucharistic prayer begins (just after the third hymn), I dare you to leave your blue booklet closed, and become involved in the drama of what is taking place at the altar. Those of you who have been coming here or worshipping elsewhere for many years certainly know by now the words of the bits we sing – the Holy, Holy Holy etc, and you almost certainly don’t need the prompting of words on the page for the bits we say together. Give it a try today, and see if the effect of being drawn out of the page and into what is actually happening makes a difference. I think you will find it does – and if it does, then perhaps you might do it again next time – and if we do things often enough, they become habits!
Someone sent me a link on my computer to a wonderful picture not so long ago. The photograph was of a boatful of people out whale-watching. They were all looking through their binoculars with great intent for any sign of a whale over one side of the boat; but the picture was taken from behind them, and there, behind their backs, a massive humpback whale was performing a full breach – a jump which lifted its body completely clear of the water – and they were all looking in the wrong direction! This feast of Corpus Christi celebrates and gives thanks for the great gift of Holy Communion – when Jesus Christ still chooses to come among us in the outward, visible signs of Bread and Wine. He comes to meet us face to face, to make His home afresh with us each time we share in the Eucharist. And each time, He breaks the Bread for us and fills our cups to overflowing with His love. Like that family in the café, all intent on their phones and missing the action, we won’t find Him in the words on the page of a service booklet; but if we dare to lift our eyes from the words towards the action, we just might find ourselves present at the table with Jesus in a way we had missed before, with Him at the head and we as His guests, participating directly in the meal which foreshadows the eternal banquet of heaven, at which He is our host, lover, companion and guide, and where all blindfolds have been removed, and where we will know and see Him as He really is.
Holy Trinity Sunday - 11th June 2017
(preached by the Rev’d David Higgon, Associate Priest)
How important is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity to your faith? Is it something that you ever give a second thought to ?
There are many similarities between the major world faiths but Christianity profoundly differs for other faiths in our understanding of God of being one God in three persons Father Son and Holy Spirit, our doctrine of the Trinity. The belief in one God is a belief we share with Islam Judaism. Not only do we share a belief in one God but we worship the same God . We all look to the God of Abraham Isaac Jacob and Moses as the creator of all this is, that was and is to be.
The belief is foundational to Judaism, it is known as the Shema, and is found in Deuteronomy 6 4-6 4Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
The first pillar of Islam, the Shadada, states that There is no god but the one true God and Mohammed is God’s final prophet.
These fundamental tenets of faith the belief in the oneness of God calls for a corresponding singleness of heart and mind and of undivided love and devotion for the one God.
It is little wonder then that the idea of one God in three person Father Son and Holy spirit hints at idolatry to these other faiths.
Christianity is then the faith that is out of step with the other Abrahamic faiths
And this radical departure comes from our foundational belief that Christ, though plainly a human being, was also God incarnate. We believe that Christ was both wholly divine and wholly human.
This belief was so momentous that it took centuries for the early church to formulate an understanding of God
To us the God in the Old Testament God communicated humanity through to through Moses and the prophets generally inaccessible. Story of Moses encounter with God in the burning bush.
But for us through Jesus Christ God becomes human and lives amongst us, healing the sick, feeding the hungry and suffering with us and suffering for us and faces death on the cross.
In Christ God gives himself in love to heal the brokenness of humanity by re-integrating both humanity and the whole of creation into God’s loving embrace.
While Judaism and Islam maintain that humanity has received a communication from God,
the Church claims that not only does God communicate with us but that our very destiny is in communion with our creator. This is at the heart of our worship, the celebration of Holy Communion.
There are all sorts of explanations that might be offered, all kinds of theologians can be quoted, all manner of creeds and confessions might be affirmed. And – after all that – most of us are still confused. Rather than only words to understand the nature of the Holy Trinity we can also use our senses and our imagination.
One image I find helpful is that of the dance – the image of the Holy Community, Father Son and Holy Spirit joining hands and joyfully being in relationship with one another. Sometimes, God is the one who keeps the underlying beat going,
Jesus might teach a new step that the others had not thought of yet
and the Spirit will improvise the tune so that the tempo and rhythm is not always the same.
But they are always in step;
they are always focusing on one another, even as each is aware of the particular part they play in the dance.And they want to share that dance with us – to teach us the steps, to help us hear the music.
The Father reaches out in Love, inviting us to dance, to show us those moves called grace, wonder, laughter, peace.
The Son connects with us in Love, taking us by the hand to draw us into the dance, whether we are hurting, or angry, or grieving, or broken, or lost.
And the Spirit welcomes us, enfolding us in Love, as we are taught to dance with abandon, with kindness, with hope, with gentleness.
And as we dance, we discover that the Trinity is not so much a doctrine as it is a living loving relationship – with us!
But even this image of the dance is doesn’t fully convey the power of this trinity of love which we are called into relationship with.
There is a prayer from the 5th Cent that by tradition was written by St Patrick;
Christ be with me,
Christ be before me,
Christ be behind me,
Christ be inside me,
Christ be beneath me,
Christ be above me,
Christ on my right hand,
Christ on my left hand,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
This gives a sense of being completely enveloped in God’s love.
The full form of this prayer goes further. I won’t read it all but here are edited highlights:
It begins with an invocation of the Holy Trinity to protect us.
Today I shield myself with threefold power.
Invocation of the Trinity
Belief in the threeness, profession of the one,
Union with the creator
Then it calls upon God present in all of his creation to protect us
Today I shield myself with the power of heaven, Light of the sun.
Brilliance of the moon, splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning, swiftness of wind,
Depths of sea, firmness of earth, hardness of rock.
It goes on
Today I shield myself with God 's power to direct me,
God's strength to uphold me,
God 's good sense to guide me,
God's ear to listen for me,
God’s speaking to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's path opening before me,
God's shield to protect me,
From the snares of demons,
The inducements of my own vices,
The proclivities of human nature,
And those who wish me evil.
I summon these powers to come
Between me and every cruel and merciless power that threatens my body and my soul.
To the writer of this prayer, the Trinity is a living loving relationship with God but it is a love that can be called to surround us and protect us .it is a love that is both kind and gentle but it is also a powerful love that will stand between us, and every cruel and merciless power that threatens body and soul
Our belief in the Trinity gives us a dynamic sense of living in Communion with God and with God’s creation.
it gives us a sense of being surrounded by the powerful love of the triune God - to hold and protect and care for us and our world against the forces that would break and destroy all that is good.
Pentecost Sunday – 04.06.2017)
(preached by the Rev’d David Higgon, Associate Priest)
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, the day the Christian Church has its beginning.
But the day doesn’t begin in anticipation of a joyous celebration, it begins in darkness and fear. Jesus’sdisciples are in hiding. The room is filled with fear – the door is locked and suddenly Jesus appears, Jesus who they had seen die on the cross, Jesus whose dead body they had placed in a tomb , in a grave. Jesus greets them with the words, Peace be with you’ and then goes on to say
As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven
We have in this short passage the interweaving of the peace offered by Jesus , the gift of the Holy Spirit and forgiveness of sins, all tied up and interconnected with each other.
Jesus greets his disciples with the words Peace be with you.
That greeting is used still used today in many cultures, when we say something like Good Day someone
from an Islamic culture would say As Salaam- Aleichem which means peace be with you and you would rely Aleichem Salaam.
Jesus was a Jew and the world he would have used is shalom which is the Hebrew word for peace.
This is peace that is more than the absence of war and fighting., it is about
it’s about justice, it’s about being fair
Its about having the right relationships with others, to live in peace, justice , freedom from oppression
It’s about Honesty and it’s about being truthful.
its about peace with the whole of God’s creation.
One of the programmes that I helped run in prisons was based on the principle of something called restorative justice.
From many prisoners point of view justice is about committing a crime getting caught , going in front of the judge , getting a sentenced, doing the time serving your sentence and back out again into society. A common saying in prison was if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. But in most cases the person left out of the process is the victim. When a crime is committed there is a breaking of a relationship between the criminal, the victim and the victims community. Restorative justice is about repairing the damage done between the criminal and society It can involve making some act of reparations to the person directly affected by the crime the victim or the community and it can involve some attempt at reconcilion. Restorative justice as an expression of true peace, much more than a cessation of conflict.
Jesus first offers a greeting in peace, before he confers his power to forgive through the gift of the Spirit.
Jesus gives his disciples a parting gift – the Holy Spirit and it comes with a task, a mission, to go out and forgive sins.
The disciples are no longer on their own, they have strength through the Holy Spirit that they can pass on to people through forgiveness. This is both a gift and a responsibility.
Where I live in Derbyshire the house backs onto the village primary school and normally you could hardly notice the sound of the children playing except on a windy day. A teacher who has been on playground duty will probably tell you that some special energy seems to take hold of the children. ‘As high as kites’ is one way to describe them. They rush and whirl round outside as if they really are being carried up into the air. Sometimes they shriek like gulls, with arms outstretched like wings. Can any of you remember feeling like that? I wonder if the disciples were as giddy as children on a windy day when the Holy Spirit swirled round them in the house that day – the day called Pentecost. Was that why they just had to get out into the streets? Was it one of the reasons people thought they were drunk?
The Holy Spirit is the ongoing presence of Jesus even when his physical presence has moved on. Jesus describes the Spirit as the one who 'will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you',
The Holy Spirit is the spirit of Jesus, it is the spirit of God, it is alive it is vibrant and how wonderful!
The Holy Spirit comes to live inside those who put their faith in Jesus.
Jesus taught us that the most important thing we must do is to love God and love our neighbour. But we have to work out how to do that. The Holy Spirit, guides us in how we live our own lives and how we can be people who try to bring peace into our world and with God’s creation.
The Holy Spirit helps us to see the world differently.
You know the story of Goldilocks and the three bears.
Goldilocks come across a house in the forest where there are 3 bowls of porridge and she eats one
There are three chairs and breaks one
And there are three beds and she is found by the three bears sleeping in one.
She wakes with a scream and runs away and is never heard of again.
Now if we talk of forgiveness of sins who has sinned and who needs forgiveness?
Goldilocks has stolen food, vandalised the furniture and has occupied some one’s bed without asking. She didn’t wait around for justice because she wouldn’t expect the bears to give her a fair trial, she wouldn’t expect to receive justice. The bears are angry they want justice, they want Goldilocks to pay the penalty for breaking into their house stealing their food and vandalising their home.
Now imagine Goldilocks is a refugee from a war zone like Syria, she is homeless and starving and Mr and Mrs Bear are wealthy people with plenty of everything.
Imagine you are Goldilocks now, and then imagine you are Mr or Mrs Bear, or baby bear. Who would be in most need of forgiveness in terms of what Jesus taught about loving God and loving neighbour? what– what would the Peace that Jesus speaks of look like now.
If the Bear family are filled with the Holy Spirit how would they respond to Goldilocks? What sort of Justice would they want for her?
They would want her to be free from the fear of violence, they would care for her well being, that she had shelter food clothes and access to medicine, they would pray for peace in the land that she was forced to run away from because of violence and war.
The Spirit, helps us to live as Jesus wants all to live in relationship with others and the whole of creation, in joy, with the exuberance of children on a windy day and with a deeper sense of peace and justice not just for ourselves but for others who share our common home.
Passiontide Sermon – Sunday 2nd 2017
(preached by Fr Nicholas Court, Rector)
Text: “Jesus began to weep” – John 11:35.
There used to be a TV program called Kids Do the Funniest Things. It was a collection of video clips of various mishaps, performances and generally hilarious and scary things children can get up to. How about a similar program just for Church people called Christians Say the Silliest Things? For a group of people who are supposed to be hyper-sensitive to other people’s needs, you do hear some Christians say things that make you want the ground to open up and swallow you. For example, the person I read about the other day, who on hearing that her friend’s husband had been made suddenly and unexpected redundant commented: “Never mind – with both of you being Christians, you’ll be a good witness for others in the same boat!” It was meant kindly I’m sure, but it was not the most helpful thing for anyone to say or hear in the circumstances. I’m sure we can all add our own examples.
Today’s rather long Gospel reading presents us with a situation needing a sensitive pastoral approach – and if it’s not too controversial to say it, Jesus seems at first to show a rather clumsy attitude to the delicacy of the situation. His knowingness and other-worldliness that seems to come through, doesn’t seem to connect with the very real pain of the people involved – Mary, Martha and the other mourners. But at the same time you cannot help but notice that the picture of Jesus which John paints for us is in many ways the most super-human of all portraits in the Gospels – and deliberately so. The Jesus of John’s Gospel knows things that no-one else knows: for example, when He calls Nathaniel, Jesus knows all about him before He actually meets him; He knows the somewhat patchy love-life of the Samaritan woman He meets at the well; He knows how He’s going to solve the issue of no food and 5000 hungry mouths before the problem is even presented to Him. John uses these instances to present us with the question his Gospel was written to pose and answer – Who is this Jesus?
And it’s the same with the story of the raising of Lazarus that we have just heard read. Jesus knows in advance that all will be well, and John has Him even delaying going to the home of Mary and Martha in order to strengthen the point. Well, that’s all very well we might think to ourselves, but there is very real pain and grief going on in Bethany, and when Jesus finally does turn up, he finds the family reeling from their loss. Martha appears to remonstrate with Jesus – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But she adds hopefully: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of Him.”
Jesus responds to this by telling her that Lazarus will rise again, and Martha, bravely trying to match what she believes (that is, that Jesus can do anything) with what she knows (that her brother is dead, and that dead people usually stay that way), opts to understand that Jesus is talking about the general resurrection on the Last Day. But perhaps even in her grief, she doesn’t actually believe it, and she goes and gets her sister Mary. And it is at this point that things appear to start to fall apart. Mary begins as Martha had done – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And Mary weeps copiously, and it is this that somehow breaks through the crust that John has constructed around Jesus, and He breaks down too, joining her in the very depth of her all too human grief. Gone are the theological speeches – suddenly no talk about mysterious knowledge of this or that. Jesus weeps – heralding a profound moment of joy for the family at Bethany, but also – because John nearly always is trying to deliver more than one meaning through his telling of events in his Gospel – setting the scene of Jesus’ own death and resurrection yet to come.
So, we have seen that it is John’s aim that in the telling of the story of the raising of Lazarus he conveys the idea that Jesus is human, but more than human. And it shows us something else too – it shows us a God who weeps in the face of human pain. John cleverly weaves the high theology of his Gospel with lived experience. We touched earlier on how difficult it sometimes is to find the words and say the right thing at the right time. As Christians we often find ourselves treading that tricky line between what we should believe and the reality of a given situation.
But in the story of Lazarus and Jesus’ tears, we get a glimpse of what is at the heart of it – that although God is almighty and omnipresent and omnipotent – and all those other things which are credited to Him – above all this, He is a God who connects with our own, lived experience. This doesn’t answer all the questions or make it easier to understand why some things happen the way they do – but it does show us something vital: that in our ongoing task of understanding how what we believe tallies with what we know, the divine love we see in Jesus can be moved to tears, and that God wants to be encountered and stand alongside us in the nitty-gritty of everyday life. It is this that makes our faith real, and it is this that makes the whole of the Christian life brim over with hope.