Lent 5 (Passion Sunday) 5.4.2019 & 7.4.2019
(preached by Fr Nicholas Court – Rector)
Text: Jesus came to Bethany.
Going on pilgrimage – or the idea of making pilgrimage – has never so popular in the last 100 years as it is now. In the Middle Ages, during which it enjoyed something of a high point and was regarded as an essential part of being part of the Church, going on pilgrimage would involve making a journey – sometimes quite a dangerous and difficult journey – whose destination would be a shrine or the tomb of a saint. We know this best of all perhaps from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, during which we eavesdrop on the stories - both tall and supposedly moral – told by a party of pilgrims on the way to visit the tomb of St Thomas a Becket. They were drawn by the tales of miraculous cures and favours granted just by venerating his bones, or touching the place where the saint had met his violent death at the hands of Henry II’s henchmen.
Although the idea that pilgrimage to kiss the bones of saintly people has largely had its heyday, some of the ancient pilgrimage-routes are still travelled for all sorts of reasons – both secular and religious. The one that comes to mind most readily is the ancient Camino de Santiago in Spain. The destination is, and always has been, the tomb of St James in the magnificent cathedral at Santiago, where it is reputed the body of James the brother of John and son of Zebedee – lies. If you travel the Camino today, it’s nigh impossible to imagine what it would have been like for those medieval pilgrims. Motorways have replaced the Roman roads and cart tracks, and a large airport now straddles part of the traditional Pilgrims’ Way. But there comes a point in the pilgrimage where, with a little imagination you can stand in the boots of the tramping pilgrims of long ago – and that’s Monte del Gozo – which means the Mountain of Joy, because from here you can see, for the first time, your destination as the towers of the magnificent gothic cathedral come into view.
If life – to borrow a hackneyed phrase – is a journey, then Lent is a pilgrimage of sorts; and perhaps we could think of this point in the journey – (nearly) the Fifth Sunday, or Passion Sunday – as our Mountain of Joy, because it’s from this point onwards that we enter Passiontide; and with just two weeks to go until Easter Day, we can glimpse in Jesus’s behaviour that the end is in sight. It’s a dark road that stretches out from here to Calvary and then to the Empty Tomb.
The Mount of Joy, for Jesus, is Bethany. The Gospel reading whisks us back into the home of the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus – the little oasis of peace and gathering to which Jesus returned time again during His ministry to recharge the batteries and spend time with friends. John’s Gospel tells us about a strange and peculiar incident there in which Mary breaks open a container of costly perfume, using it to anoint Jesus’s feet, and proceeds to dry them with her hair. What Mary does is outrageous and shocking – something we might miss viewing the incident through western, 21st century eyes. This woman – in public – is touching a rabbi – but not just touching Him, which would be cause enough for scandal. There, in the full gaze of their guests, Mary does something to Jesus which would normally be reserved for the intimacy between husband and wife. As occasionally surfaces in John’s Gospel, it seems clear that the writer has more than a bit of a problem with Judas, and never misses an opportunity to paint his character in varying shades of black. Judas’s reaction to what is going on is to castigate Mary – interestingly - not for her outrageous behaviour - but because she is being so wasteful. But Jesus rounds on Judas and tells him that she has bought the perfume for ‘the day of my burial’.
It’s tempting to think that this allusion Jesus makes to His impending death is the most important part of this passage from John. But standing as we do just now – metaphorically – on the Mount of Joy, with Passiontide and Holy Week stretching out before us, perhaps it should be this bizarre foot-washing that demands our attention. Less than two weeks from this point in the story, Jesus will kneel at the feet of His disciples and, one by one, He’ll wash their feet as an expression and example of love and service for them. In fact, it’s the foot-washing that John records as the eucharistic act at the Last Supper, and not the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine. For John, it is that foot-washing that foreshadows the Passion more eloquently even than what Jesus says and does at the table. For John, we might say, actions are more powerful than words, because what Jesus does for them, He will ask them to do for each other – in fact, more strongly than just asking, he gives them a New Commandment, to do this. It’s as if He might have said on that Thursday night – “What you saw Mary do for me at Bethany, do to and for each other now – and always”, because in that upper room we and they can see – if they look through and beyond what Mary did - what it means and what it might involve to follow Jesus and embrace fully the life of a disciple.
Seemingly knowing that time is short, Mary’s response is one of love – generous, unrestrained love – the sort that she has seen displayed in the life of her Lord – and she does this with no regard for what people might think, say or whisper. John contrasts this with Judas’s sniping at her extravagance. Before Jesus washes His disciples’ feet, Mary washes His. Before Jesus commands His disciples to ‘love one another’, Mary shows that she understands the core of Jesus’s message – He is all about love in action. That’s where today’s reading meets us on our journey – from this place of respite at Bethany through to the heart of what lies ahead. To call it the Mountain of Joy might be to press the analogy too far for some, but it is the place where we’re reminded that the following of Jesus is formed of two essential ingredients – love and service – love of God and love of one another, and service to those with whom we share the journey (as well as most of us who are still loitering around the starting-line).
For many, these last weeks of Lent can be too long. But a faithful pilgrimage through Passiontide and Holy Week can be enriching, uplifting and challenging. We only dare expose ourselves to what is to come because Jesus is risen and has broken the chains of the death and hell. And we do not do this on our own – we face these coming days as members of a Christian community whose marks are called to be those of love and service. This is not a time to ‘give something up’ – it is, rather more tellingly – as it was for Mary of Bethany, a time to find feet to wash.
Lent 4 (Mothering Sunday) – 31st March 2019
(preached by Fr Nicholas Court - Rector)
Text: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
Some years ago now – when people read and knew their Bibles considerably better than they do now – if you were to have stopped someone in the street and asked them to name one of the parables of Jesus, you would probably have got some sort of response. If you tried that nowadays, I expect what you might get back is: “What’s a parable?” or, perhaps more worrying: “Who is Jesus?” But in those far off days, the most popular and best-known would probably have been the parable of the Sower, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the parable of the Prodigal Son. They are all powerful stories, and they all lay fairly hefty challenges at the feet of anyone who reads them and then tries to apply them.
The parable that’s known as the Prodigal Son has a sub-title – the parable of the Two Sons. Jesus uses a framework which we (and the listeners in His own time) know only too well – the framework of relationships within families, and how they can sometimes run anything but smoothly, and when selfishness and self-satisfaction can sometimes throw a massive spanner in the works, and the whole edifice of family life judders to a halt. It seems at first sight a strange choice of reading for Lent 4 – when we also celebrate Mothering Sunday – and that’s because it seems a bit lop-sided, being a tale that focuses and centres exclusively on the male members of the family in the story – the father, the two sons, the pig-farmer, and the servants (who may or may not have been male). There is one person in this set-up who never gets a mention – the mother of the two sons.
It’s not enough (or even true) to say that the mother doesn’t feature, because all women were of low standing in the society of the time. We are reading this story from Luke’s Gospel, in which we meet with a Jesus who is constantly mindful (and reminding those around Him) of the importance and uniqueness of every person, regardless of gender or of age. This spills over into His teaching as reported in other Gospel accounts too - you’ll remember how He takes a tiny child as a visual aid when He teaches the disciples about greatness and of those closest to His Father’s heart, and also what He has to say to those who bring to Him a woman caught in the act of adultery for His judgement. In each case, the expectations of the crowd are turned on their heads. So, it seems unlikely that Jesus would have made no mention of the mother because of social or religious convention. So, why is it that she doesn’t seem to get a look-in?
When Jesus told parables or gave any form of teaching, it seems clear that He intended us to go away and fill in the apparent blanks, as well as to pick up on the more obvious points. I wonder how many people went home after hearing this parable and asked themselves (or others who had heard what they had heard) – “What about the mother in this story?” If you have ever been involved in even a passing way with Jewish people, sooner or later the mother of the family will get a mention. As now, so in the days of Jesus, the centre-post of any family is the mother. You cannot be Jewish (other than by a conscious decision to convert) unless your mother is Jewish. The stereotype of any Jewish boy is that he loves his mother, and most Jewish men I know are in rather more fear and trembling of what their mothers might think, or of her opinion about what he may have done, than ever they are of their fathers.
So when the young man in this story leaves home for he knows not where, and with a bulging wallet, his mother would have worried a lot more about him than if he had stormed off penniless following a family row. And, of course, her worst fears are realized when he eventually returns. She and his father must have spent the sort of sleepless nights all parents have when their children haven’t returned home when they’ve been expected. Just because most mothers will find themselves eventually having to look up to look into their son’s face, they never cease to be their children. The maternal bond between mother and son is usually more overtly obvious than the bond between father and son. But it is into the arms of his father that the returning prodigal falls on his return, not those of his mother.
So, where is the mother? Why did Jesus tell this story without featuring the mother? Is the father a widow? Is the mother ill? Perhaps the point is that this is a story about a father who behaves like a mother, at least in terms of the expectations of the ancient Middle East. A son who asked his father to give him his inheritance while he was still alive would have been the ultimate disgrace and insult. It would be like wishing your father dead. To give away his property while he was still alive would be to lose honour. First century followers of Jesus, hearing this story, would have expected the father to explode and discipline his son when he asked him for what was due to come to him one day. But this father gives his greedy son his portion of the inheritance and lets him be on his way.
If this isn’t bad enough, this child goes off and loses his inheritance to Gentiles of all people – we’re told that ‘the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living’. Not only has this son disrespected his own father, he has shamed the whole community – and ends up feeding pigs – ritually unclean animals in an unclean country. When the prodigal son returns, the apparently foolish father runs out to greet his son on the road. No respectable older man would hike up his tunic, show his legs and run in public – as it seems he does here. And when the father reaches his wayward son he throws his arms around him and kisses him. This son has a whole apology ready and a plea to be allowed to come back, even if it’s as one of his hired servants, but before he can even finish his speech, the father calls for the best robe to be brought… which would have been the father’s robe, reserved for feasts. The father wants a ring placed on his son’s hand….most likely the signet ring…a sign of trust. The sandals which he asks to be brought, mark him as a free man, not a servant who would have gone bare-foot. The killing of a fatted calf means a celebration so large that the whole village is invited.
Now, this is where the older brother enters the picture. But he insults his father by refusing to even enter the house. So the father humbles himself and becomes the reconciler. After the oldest son complains about the party and all the fuss, the father addresses him, “My child,”, he says to him. This is a more affectionate title than we can demonstrate in our language – more akin to saying “My loved one” – or as they’d say in Wales: “My lovely boy”. The father plays the role of mother….again…at least in the cultural expectations of those first hearing this parable. I wonder if, when Jesus told this parable, the mother was not there because there was no need, as Jesus was describing a father who behaved like a mother. Maybe He did it to shock and surprise His listeners into understanding the love and grace of God in new ways – reflecting those calls of Jesus towards new ways of seeing the world….God, who is like a mother hen; a forgiving father who acts like a mother; and in another parable, a hero who is – of all things - a Samaritan.
Mothering Sunday is, of course, all about mothers – those who have always made a difference to our world and our society. But mothers aren’t defined just as procreators of the species. This Mothering Sunday is also for those who use their bodies and voices to struggle for a world of peace and justice, and who are so often at the heart of reconciliation; for those women standing together on behalf of the children of our world, like the Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo in Argentina who for three decades demanded justice and truth telling about ‘the disappeared’; the Tiananmen Mothers who demanded a change in the Chinese government over the suppression of protests; the Mothers Against Drunk Drivers which was started by one mother whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver on Sunset Avenue in Fair Oaks, California. Mothers don’t have to be written either into or out of the story. As Jesus reminded us: “Those who do the will of my Father, are my brother, and sister and mother.
Lent 3, Year C – 23rd March 2019
(preached by Fr Nicholas Court, Rector)
I read a story the other day about a soap manufacturer and a pastor walking together down a street in a large city. The soap manufacturer casually said, ‘The gospel you preach hasn’t done much good has it? Just look. There is still a lot of wickedness in the world, and a lot of wicked people, too!’ The pastor made no reply until they passed a dirty little child making mud pies in the gutter. Seizing the opportunity, the pastor said, ‘I see that soap hasn’t done much good in the world either; there’s still a lot of dirt about, and many dirty people around.’ The soap man said, ‘Oh, well, soap only works when it is applied.’ And the pastor said, ‘I rest my case.’
The murder of the Galileans under Pilate and the toppling of the tower in Siloam are two incidents that are reported only here, in today’s Gospel, and we know nothing else about these incidents. But what we know of Pilate’s character fits in with the tragedy of this story. Undoubtedly these were news-worthy conversation pieces at the time, and those around Jesus seem to be asking the same question that the disciples asked concerning the blind man in John’s Gospel, about whether illness, death or disaster visit us as a punishment for sin. Jesus tries to explain that the people caught up in whatever this tragedy was, had not been singled out for a horrible death because they were somehow worse sinners than anybody else. Instead, He seizes the opportunity to tell those around him that they should spend a bit less time looking at how other people live, and be looking at their own lives. Twice within three verses Jesus says, ‘Unless you repent, you too will perish.’ Strong stuff! Jesus reminds us that there is not a simple one-to-one correlation between sin and suffering.
We’re all still reeling from the devastation wrought just over a week ago by a gunman who went on the rampage in Christchurch, New Zealand – events that have had the power not just to cause personal tragedy, but one that strikes us on a national and international level. Sometimes, when a great tragedy befalls our personal lives, the lives of our families or the life of our nation, it makes us think. Jesus uses two current and tragic situations to suggest to us that there are any number of ‘wake-up call’ moments in our lives. Moments when – on a personal level - we need to take a look at ourselves and make the necessary changes that can help bring us around into a right relationship with God and with each other. We might also think of the story of the Prodigal Son, and the point at which the younger son ‘comes to his senses’ and, realising the foolishness of what he had done and how he had behaved, sets off to be reunited with his father. And the story about the fig tree that Jesus in today’s Gospel goes on to tell is another sideways glance at what it might mean to live the Christian life, of God’s requirement of fruitfulness, of His mercy, of Jesus’ intercession on our behalf, of the fact that while – yes - God’s mercy is infinite, the time for repentance is ever-present. The parable is an invitation to repent, to amend our life and produce the fruit of genuine repentance – all themes prominent in Lent.
We’re told that the owner of the tree has been looking for fruit for three years now – so it would seem that the tree is well-established. It isn’t a good sign that for the three years the tree hasn’t borne any fruit: it probably won’t do any better in the future either. The owner says, ‘Cut it down.’ After all, it was taking up ground that might be used for a more productive tree. The dresser of the vineyard asks the owner to be patient for another year. He will try to coax it into bearing fruit: fertilise, dig around and loosen the earth. But if after another year there is still no fruit, then the owner can cut it down.
The fig tree could be taken to symbolize any Christian life which gives the appearance of being fully in tune with God but is really just a front to impress others. The apparently healthy fig tree without fruit symbolizes an apparently healthy Christian life that does not produce the sort of actions and behaviours that God wants from us, and demonstrates in the life of Jesus. The tree looks healthy but it isn’t. A Christian can use all the right buzz words, read the Bible, attend Church and do all the churchy things – while living a life that fails to demonstrate the love of Christ in daily actions. We don’t have to look very far back in Church history to see that. Then again, the fig tree could symbolise the Church itself. We live in a land where the Bible is freely available. When we read it, isn’t it right that God demands ‘fruit’ from us?
As often when we hear the words of Jesus, there is a plain warning here for all of us: if we are lacking the fruits of the Spirit, then it’s all window-dressing. Lent is a season of repentance, and repentence can bring us closer to God. I dare say there are many, many people up and down our land who have heard the Gospel preached faithfully for hundreds of Sundays on end, and yet when it comes to putting flesh on it, draw back – and how do I know this? Because I have done it myself. But we see also in this story an illustration of God’s mercy. With Jesus as our mediator God will give us more time. There truly is a wideness in God’s mercy, which gives us time to turn from those habits and distractions that can so easily lead us away from being the people God would have us be.
And so are we fruitful or unfruitful? This is the question that should concern us all. What does God see in us year after year? Are our lives ones that bear His mark? - ones that bear fruit to the glory of God. Whatever the answer – and that might depend on how honest we are with ourselves - there is always hope – that is what Jesus came to show us. Repentance leads us to hope, and of course repentance isn’t just a one-off event. The Christian life is a constant call to turn our lives around – that
‘wake up call’. But there is also a day-to-day repentance that keeps on putting our sins away, of making sure that our face is always turned to God. Just like soap, in fact. We can get all cleaned up once and wash away the grime and soil, but after that – because we can’t possibly stay that way - we still need to be washed clean every day; and our Lenten disciplines – whatever they may be – can help with that. May we all feel the touch of God’s forgiving love as we continue our Lenten journey – to forgive what we have been, to amend what we are, and to direct what we shall be. Amen.
Lent 2 Year C – Sunday 17th March 2019
(preached by Fr Nicholas Court - Rector)
Text: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’
A quick story...and I promise that this did not involve me. During a wedding rehearsal the day before the actual wedding, the groom approaches the priest with an unusual offer. “I’ll give you £100”, he says, ”if you’ll change the wedding vows. When you get to me and the part where you ask if I promise to ‘love, honour and obey’ and ‘forsaking all others, be faithful to her forever,’ I’d appreciate it if you’d just leave that second part out.” He passes the priest a roll of five £20 notes and walks away satisfied. The day of the wedding arrives, and they reach the part of the ceremony where the vows are exchanged. When it comes time for the groom’s vows, the pastor looks him in the eye and says: “Will you promise to obey her every wish and command, serve her breakfast in bed each and every morning of your life, and swear eternally before God and your lovely new wife that you will not ever even look at another woman, as long as you both shall live?” The groom gulps, looks around, and replies in a meek voice, “I will.” After the wedding, the groom pulls him aside and hisses, “I thought we had a deal!” The priest presses the roll of notes back into the groom’s hand and whispers, “Sorry, my son, she made me a much better offer.”
We don’t always keep our promises, do we? Lent is a time that reminds us that sometimes we can’t even keep the promises we’ve made to ourselves, as in this second week of Lent, the reality starts to bite, and our resolution – perhaps – starts to falter. Today’s reading from Genesis is all about promises, but the story is a little bit mysterious without some context. To begin with, this is not the first time God has made promises to Abram. Ten years earlier, when Abram was 75, God had commanded him to set out from his urban home with his wife Sarai and all their wealth, and to wander out through the desert, not knowing where he was headed...all he has is God’s promise. God says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing ….. and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram, trusting God’s promises, packs up all he has – his family and his slaves - and sets out for parts unknown. That took a lot of faith and trust!
Well, here we are with our reading from Genesis this morning 10 years later, and he and his family are still wandering through the desert...with still no land to settle in, and no children with which to build up this great nation that God had promised. Abram is beginning to wobble, and he’s getting more than a little bit hacked off at God. He’s been through a lot in those years. They’ve wandered down to Egypt for a while, where Pharaoh has ended up sleeping with Sarai. He’s parted company with his nephew, Lot - his most likely heir if he doesn’t get on and have his own child - in a rather acrimonious parting. Abram and Sarai are now looking at Plan B: to leave the entire estate to one of their household slaves, Eliezer of Damascus. They’re tempted to just give up on this God and his seemingly empty promises. That’s where today’s passage starts.
Abram has a vision in which God comes and speaks to him, saying, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I’m still in charge; your reward is going to be very great.” And Abram has had quite enough of this, and he challenges God. He says, “Look, Lord, just what exactly are you offering me here, because I’ve been doing this thing for 10 years now.” And then God takes him outside and says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you’re able to count them. That’s how many descendants you’re going to have.” This part of the story reaches its climax when we’re told, “And Abram believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” That’s what people are supposed to do with God’s promises: trust them, accept them, rely on them. Abram doesn’t have to do anything more than that.
And then God makes the promise of possessing a land once more...and Abram starts questioning and doubting all over again, challenging God for proof. They’ve been here before. And then the story gets weird: while he’s dreaming, God comes and tells him the rest of the promise: Abram will have heirs, but they will end up slaves for 400 years in a land that is not theirs, but God will eventually lead them out of the land to their own land of promise. And God promises Abram that he will not himself see the fulfillment of the promise of many descendants and a land flowing with milk and honey. That part of the promise doesn’t sound so great, does it? And I would like to be able to tell you that nine months later, Abram and Sarai welcomed a bouncing baby boy. But it doesn’t happen that way. No. The couple begins to think God is not going to come through, so they come up with Plan C – and here the whole story takes on the plot of some awful soap opera - Abram takes Sarai’s maid as his concubine, and has a child with her, Ishmael. As you might guess, that doesn’t turn out well either. And then when Abram is 100 years old God appears once more with the promise of a child and of descendants, and at this juncture, Sarai actually laughs at God. But then she gives birth to Isaac, and the fulfillment of the promise is – at last - set in motion.
You really couldn’t make it up! The fulfillment of God’s promises is not always immediate, as much as we would like it to be. In scripture, trusting God’s promises sometimes require a hefty dollop of patience. As the story in the Old Testament unravels, the descendants of Abraham keep breaking the covenant with God. And every time, God is loyal and faithful. Eventually of course, God goes so far as to offer a new covenant by coming to us in Jesus Christ, in whose death God in effect says to us, “See? I’m willing to go to the Cross for you, even though you’ve failed time and again to keep your part of the agreement to be faithful. This is the length that I will go to in order to remain faithful to you.”
I think maybe this is the greatest message of encouragement for us as we journey through Lent. Trying to be faithful Christians isn’t about how many chocolates we’ve sneaked or how many times we’ve given into the lure of the biscuit-tin. Lent reminds us that we do indeed perhaps feel like we’re alongside Abram wandering in a strange land, and that there seems to be little to show for it all. And God doesn’t mind us wondering that, even out loud. In our following of Lent – whatever that may be and however many pitfalls seem to open up in front of us – we might find in helpful to keep that story and that figure of Abram as our encouragement and our model never to despair of God’s faithfulness. Our following of Jesus must always be in the context of “already, and also not yet”. God is patient with us; let’s learn to be more patient with Him and with ourselves – not a bad motto as we sail on through Lent to the bright promise that still lies just beyond the horizon of our journey – about a month on from now.