On this page you can find details of this month’s services and transcripts of recent sermons preached by our Minister, Revd Dr Kirsty Thorpe.
Sunday 2nd December 2018
Sunday 25th November 2018
Sunday 11th November 2018 – Remembrance Sunday
Sunday 28th October 2018
Sunday 21st October 2018
Sunday 7th October 2018
Sunday 30th September 2018
Sunday 23rd September 2018
Sunday 9th September 2018
Sunday 2nd September 2018
Forthcoming Church Services
Sunday 2nd December 2018
Jeremiah 33: 14-16 and Luke 21: 25-36
One of our household’s pet hates is when people use words inaccurately. I can predict the raised voice back to the radio or TV when yet another interviewee describes a part of the NHS or public service as being ‘decimated’ by cuts or something similar. Another word which gets bandied around a lot just now, because of the amount of turbulence and disruption in our world and uncertainty about the future, is ‘apocalyptic’. What exactly does the word mean? The dictionary says apocalyptic means: ‘relating to or involving predictions about future disasters and the destruction of the world. …a gloomy and apocalyptic vision of a world hastening towards ruin.’ Both today’s readings have an ‘end of the world as we know it’ feel to them. They come from two different times in Jewish history but they share a focus on the position and future of the capital city, heart of religion, home of the Temple – Jerusalem. The city is seen as a symbol of all that people hope and fear about what’s happening now and what might be around the corner in the very near future.
Capitals always stand for a lot for a whole nation. When a great city falls to enemy attack it usually means the country as a whole feels lost at best and totally defeated at worst. Think of the impact on New York of the destruction of the twin towers on September 11th 2001 – the city, the nation, the world even felt rocked at its foundations. During the Civil War in the mid 17th century the point when it could be said King Charles 1 acknowledged his weakness in terms of public support most glaringly was when he moved his court from the danger of London (where the forces of resistance were centred on the House of Commons) to Oxford. President Assad has determinedly held onto his position in Damascus throughout seven years of civil war in Syria, even though at times some of the suburbs were rebel strongholds.
In today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, Jesus is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, within days of his impending death. He has just warned his close followers, and those others hanging onto his every word, about the danger of putting too much faith in the great building they’re surrounded by. Jerusalem is going to be attacked and overthrown soon, he tells them, and people will need to flee for their lives as their religious heartland is overtaken by non-believers. But all this is part of something much bigger – part of God’s plan for the judgement and saving of the world, summed up in the coming of a figure Jesus calls the ‘Son of Man’. That’s a title his Jewish hearers would recognise from the apocalyptic texts in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly the book of Daniel: ‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.’ (Daniel 7:13)
In the face of this impending disaster Jesus calls on people to stay awake and tuned in to the world around them, so they can pick up the signs of the times. Whereas others may be overcome by fear they need not collapse with fear because God’s judgement is a sign of hope and liberation for them and the world.
What are we to make of a reading like that at the start of Advent, a period of hopeful, attentive waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus? The second reading from the prophet Jeremiah comes from 600 years before the birth of Jesus but is also about darkness and light for the nation and God’s people. The armies of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon are encircling Jerusalem in the final act of an attack that’s been getting worse year on year. He’s already threatened the rightful King Jehoiakim of Judah a few years before, who’d bought a temporary peace by forfeiting some temple silver and allowing members of the royal family and nobility to be taken hostage. Now Jehoiakim has been replaced by a young puppet ruler. The Babylonian king is about to depose that temporary King of Judah, destroy the city and the Temple, and cart off 10,000 of Judah’s finest into slavery. Jeremiah, the prophet, is in prison in the city as the end approaches. He hears words of hope!
Having earned himself a reputation as a voice of doom and gloom when everyone else was pretending the state of Judah was fine, happy and secure, Jeremiah now tops his reputation for being totally countercultural by speaking words of hope as disaster in the form of the Babylonian army is about to strike. Has he finally lost it altogether? Is imprisonment tipping him over into madness? We need to know that in the previous chapter of the book Jeremiah has just done the most ridiculous thing possible for someone in prison whose nation is facing total defeat – he’s invested in a plot of land. Why do that when the bottom is about to fall out of the land market altogether and the area around the capital to become nothing more than place to stand and look at the ruins of a once great city? Well, the easy answer is if God tells you and – like Jeremiah – you’ve found that resisting God gets you nowhere you have to obey. Hear Jeremiah’s explanation from chapter 32 verse 9: ’so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out the price for him, seventeen shekels of silver.’ Talk about pointless gestures – this takes the biscuit, surely. But it allows Jeremiah to hear words of hope about the future, even as the present is falling apart before his very eyes: ‘The days are coming, says the Lord, when I shall bestow on Israel and Judah all the blessings I have promised them.’ Somebody else, in the line of the great King David, will spring up to lead God’s people. He will be a person of righteousness, worth placing your trust in, who restores everything and everyone to their rightful place.
If, like me, you can identify with Jeremiah in prison fearing the worst yet praying for the best today, which field is God encouraging you to go out and buy? Is there something you can do to remind yourself of the way God’s plans operate on a totally different time scale from ours, and God’s solutions come at the problems with a very different perspective and understanding too? Is there a place where you feel close to God – somewhere you might return to either literally or in your prayerful imagination while you ponder the answer to these questions – a garden, a graveyard, a sea shore, a hilltop, a special seat, a favourite poem, a dining table surrounded by much loved guests? Where is your field? I have two fields I think of in answer to this. One is in the Kidron valley, on the edge of Jerusalem. Martin and I went there on a trip to Israel and Palestine 8 years ago. It was bought over 60 years ago by Chiara Lubich, founder of the international spirituality and unity Focolare movement and is near the place where tradition says Jesus was imprisoned overnight after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. The dream is that one day it might be a place where people of all faiths and none could build unity. It has never been possible yet for planning permission to be given for any building to happen there. Building in Jerusalem is a highly political and contentious thing to do. The bare ground is a silent symbol of that hope. I saw my other field from a distance, on a Welsh hillside, when Martin and I were on holiday a few days ago. It reminded me of this poem ‘The bright field’ by Welsh clergyman R. S. Thomas.
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Sunday 25th November 2018
John 18: 33-47 and Revelation 1. 4b-8
We’re almost at the end today. Next Sunday is the new beginning. No, I don’t mean the start of another month, or another rush towards Christmas, or another tree to beautify the church. Today is the last Sunday of this Christian Year. Next week we start the cycle all over again with Advent, as we tell the story of the preparations for and birth of Jesus. We go round in circles for much of our lives – the M60, the M25, the route to work and back – and we give one another circles in the form of gold rings to symbolise love and faithfulness. There are annual cycles we all experience too such as the circle – or sometimes the familiar repetitive drag – of the school year, or the accountancy year, or the year in the garden, or the medical year. For the surgeries near us here flu jabs are often followed by a winter health crisis. Cold weather and icy pavements see a rise in falls and breaks and sprains and unhelpful stays in bed for those with broken bones. Come the spring, the patients queue up for their holiday vaccinations as we prepare to go off around the globe and come back again, full circle. And the church year has its own cycles. This year we’ve read mainly from the gospel of Mark and next year starting on Sunday December 2nd we’ll be following Luke. In the year after that our main focus will be on Matthew’s gospel (bits of John’s gospel are inserted around the edges each year) and then we’ll be back to Mark once more. It’s called the Lectionary Cycle incidentally.
On this last Sunday of the Christian year we’ve heard from the opening verses of the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible. This is a letter of Christian instruction, written at the end of the first century to help seven churches in Asia – modern day Turkey – to work out their discipleship. These opening verses contain one of the earliest examples of the way Christians began to understand and express the cycles within God. The writer begins by describing how God chooses to make a home among ordinary humanity by giving us Jesus as God’s witness, ‘firstborn from the dead’. Then we hear a description of God that’s totally new, and had never been heard before: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is, who was, and who is to come, the sovereign Lord of all.”
I am the ‘A’ and the ‘Z’ says the Lord God. That would be the equivalent in the alphabet we use. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega the last. The New Testament manuscripts are all written in Greek with occasional snippets of Aramaic, the language Jesus and his disciples spoke. What does it mean that God should be both the beginning and the end of all things? Here are some end of year thoughts on that. This summer I spent several days trawling through most of our church archive, reading minutes and dipping into newsletters and other documents dating back over a century. We have here on file all the minutes of Elders meetings going back to the beginning of the United Reformed Church in 1972, when this church stopped being Wilmslow Congregational Church and started being Wilmslow United Reformed Church. One thing you always discover when you read accounts of an organisation is how short human memories are. The ability to say ‘we’ve been here once before’ often depends on the alertness of a few individuals who stay around on in an organisation and remember what’s happened in the past. Reading archives also shows you how often history repeats itself. Here’s a couple of examples. There were at least 3 occasions in the last half century when this church addressed problems of damp in the level below the church here and thought they’d sorted it out once and for all. Let’s hope our latest contribution to this process is one that’s really worked – time will tell. There have also been at least 3 instances over the same period when this church and Wilmslow Methodist Church have talked about greater closeness, gone round the houses about it, come back to square one again and then not followed things through. Sometimes an experience of going round in circles brings out the worst in us in terms of frustration, impatience, anger or even outright rejection of others and a decision to walk away from the situation and the people involved. You can hear examples of this in the debate about Brexit now. One person’s ‘completing a process’ is someone else’s ‘going round in circles and getting nowhere.’ So how does God see things, the God who the writer of Revelation describes as the beginning and end of all things, the starting point and the destination, the jumping off point and the target?
God knows plenty about our ability to go around in circles. You only have to read the stories of the Israelites in the wilderness to know this is true. In the period after escaping from slavery in Egypt the children of Israel got close to the edge of the Promised Land several times but God knew they weren’t ready for the challenge. In the end their wilderness wanderings filled 40 years and made it impossible for Moses to enter Canaan with them before his death. In all that time whether they liked it or not – and they certainly got themselves a reputation for grumbling in the process – they were learning things, usually the hard way because that’s the only way God could get them to listen. Once they were finally ready to tread and cross the verge of Jordan, and taste the bread of heaven as they were landed safe on Canaan’s side, it duly happened but not before.
In that forty years they had done a lot of going around in circles, literally and spiritually. Going back to worshipping idols such as the golden calf, forgetting the one God whose image cannot be carved or represented by human hands, was one of those major mistakes. Falling out with one another at frequent intervals and failing to listen to their leader Moses, God’s right hand man, was another repeating error. Two generations had passed by the time God judged them ready for the next part of their adventure and even then it was a big risk letting them loose in the Promised Land, as later events would show.
So how does God, who is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, keep patience with our repeating mistakes and circular journeys? I take some comfort from a Winnie the Pooh story, in which Pooh and Piglet on a snowy day are tracking the footprints of what they fear is a woozle. They are circling a large tree in the forest, getting more and more anxious with each revolution. As they go round and round they discover more tracks in the snow, and convince themselves they are on the trail of a worryingly large group of woozles. They are only saved from their panic by the voice of Christopher Robin, who’s been watching them from his roost in a nearby tree. He cheerfully calls out how amusing it is to see them following their own footprints in this way. Pooh realises what they’ve been doing and is both relieved and embarrassed. Life goes on.
In training for ministry I discovered a new way to look at this challenge of circles, cycles, beginning and endings. Theological cycles propose that each time we go around the loop and come back to where we began we have in fact grown through the process. We try at the start to discover God’s will for us, listen to one another as we make a plan, put things into action and then reflect on the outcome. Seen in that way we’re not just coming back to the beginning again having learned nothing. We’ve gained insights on the way – about God, about one another, about ourselves, and that helps us as followers of Jesus. The God who is beyond, above, outside of and who supersedes both our understandings of journey and of time – who was and is and is to come – operates in different ways from us yet understands us perfectly.
I can’t end without recalling a moment which stays with me from over 30 years ago when John Morgans was completing his ministry as Moderator of Wales synod to become full time minister of Llanfair, Penrhys. He spoke about the way his life had begun in the Rhondda Valley, in Hopkinstown where his father was head of the primary school and his ministry would be concluding in the estate at the top of the hill. He read this from T.S Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’. I think it’s a fitting way for us to end this church year:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well.
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Sunday 11th November 2018 – Remembrance Sunday
Mark 12: 38-44 and Hebrews 9: 24-28
Memories of one hundred years ago
Wilmslow Congregational Church Magazine came out monthly during the Great War, sharing news of the church on Alderley Road and the daughter church at Morley. When war broke out in 1914 the minister was Horace Turner who had come to Wilmslow from ministry in Bolton in 1904. He and his wife Ada lived at Mendip Villa, Wilmslow, with their two sons Charles and Alfred, and four daughters Lucy, Bertha, Grace and Hilda.
War created a spiritual crisis for many people. In October 1914 the magazine printed Mr Turner’s sermon from the evening service on September 6th on ‘War and the Will of God’.
‘I suppose that all of us have lately been asking again and again – if there is a God why does He permit such things to be? We cannot and will not believe that God brought this thing
about in the ordinary course of His government of the world…… We hold that this war has its origin in human wickedness and not in the Divine will at all. God has not willed it. He has only permitted it…..
When He created man He chose to make him a moral being. A moral being must have liberty of choice or he is not moral….Having given him this freedom God does not take it back; that would be to de-moralise him. God abides by the consequences of His own action and one of the consequences is that there are times when man, in his wickedness, will thwart the Divine will.…
When you look out upon Europe today and see the pitifulness of it, the reek of battle, the agonies of the wounded and dying, the homeless refugees in their pathetic and awful plight, do not lose your faith in God. Do not say “There can be no God, for if there were He would not permit such things to be.” He has given freedom to the human will, and if he were to take it away, man would be man no longer.’
Twelve men from Wilmslow Congregational Church enlisted as soldiers in autumn 1914 and two more were in officer training. They weren’t alone, as Morley Notes proudly recorded:
It gives us gratification to state that quite a large number of our friends of Morley and districts around have responded to the call of duty and are now serving in various departments of National Defence, amongst them Sam Allen, Arthur Harris and Arnold Potts, formerly connected with the school. Two of the most capable teachers of our Sunday School Mr Roger Knott and Mr James Marshall have gone to serve their country. They will perform their duty the more nobly if they feel that they are ever in the thoughts and prayers of their fellow workers and scholars in the Sunday School. We have every confidence that whatever task may be assigned to them they all will bear themselves as true Christian Soldiers.
Women supported the war effort too. Miss May Turner from Wilmslow joined the Territorial Force Nursing Service and wrote home from a military hospital in Cardiff:
‘At 2am sixty wounded arrived from Southampton at our temporary hospital of 180 beds. There were thousands of people outside and they gave them a magnificent reception. They arrived from the station in motors and most of them were able to walk in, although some looked very ill and exhausted. They come from all regiments and have been in their clothes for several weeks and have been 10 days in coming over.
There are Irish Guards, Highlanders in kilts, Hants, Cheshires, Manchesters, British Grenadiers, West Riding and all of them fine men and men to be proud of. All of them have wounds, bullet and shell, which have not been dressed for days. One poor fellow has three fingers blown off by a shell which killed four others before it touched him. The first move was to give them a big meal and they told us they had had practically nothing for a fortnight except what the villagers gave them as they marched. …After a square meal we had them in a dressing room and dressed all the wounds. I helped a Swansea doctor and we dressed thirty of them, wounds of head, arm, fingers, thighs, chest etc. Some of them must be very painful, yet they are all longing to go back. They all want to be in Berlin when it is taken. I have felt like crying at the hardships these brave men have gone through for our sake…. I am glad they have comfortable beds and can have a real good sleep. The tales they tell of the German atrocities are dreadful.
People needed a break from the war and the Literary Society came to the rescue with
record numbers of over 180 people attending its meetings to the delight of the committee:
‘Frankly, we have to make the confession that we have almost as many members as we can conveniently accommodate. Our prosperity may be attributed to the following: ‘One – a programme of exceptional attraction. Two – the energy of half a dozen enthusiasts, one of whom (Miss Thompson) deserves the Society’s gratitude for securing no less than 59 members; Three – the necessity for some form of intellectual relief during this period of national tension.
Christmas time brought mixed emotions, as the Church Notes column commented:
‘Our Christmas this year will be so overshadowed by what is happening amongst the nations that it will not be easy for us to get into the spirit of the season, and it might perhaps seem advisable not to make the attempt for fear of a sense of hollowness and unreality. And yet, surely, it will be well for us to realise how far removed the whole sad business is from the spirit of the Prince of Peace. Terrible as the actual is, the ideal must never be lost sight of, and to gaze at it once again may send us to our knees in more earnest prayer to God that He will in mercy shorten the struggle and establish once again the reign of peace upon the earth.’
Christmas gifts were sent to all those in uniform from both churches, including the minister’s son Charles Turner who was with the Royal Fusiliers. They got a selection of woollen jerseys, socks, mitts, pocket knives, wrist watches, a personal letter from the Pastor, and a khaki bound copy of the New Testament. The men in the training camps and on active service sent letters of thanks:
‘My warmest thanks and appreciation of the parcel of gifts, as also for your very kind letter. It is a strange and in many ways a taking life, this serious training to fight, into which so many of us are for the first time settling down, but I believe when it is all over that we shall find that it has done us no harm.’
Morley Notes included a glimpse of life on the front line from Lance Corporal Harris:
‘I am going on quite all right and in the best of health. We are now having some very sharp frosts at night but the roads in the day are up to the knees in mud, and are not like the roads at home. It is alright over here, but we have to rough it a lot, the food is not so bad, but we should like more of it.’
By June 1915 the Wilmslow Congregational Church Roll of Honour for those supporting the war effort included 26 men – five of them in the fighting line – and 2 women, both nurses. The Ladies’ Working Meeting responded to a War Office appeal by making garments for wounded soldiers and sandbags for the trenches.
Morley Sunday School reported: ‘Our scholars on Sunday afternoon May 16th had the opportunity of seeing the shattered Testament which saved the life of Private Richard Cole. At the time of receiving his wounds Private Cole suffered terrible loss in the death of his brother who was killed in action. Both were members of Mr Stark’s class, and prior to their departure for the front received this wonderful book from Mr Stark.’
Lieutenant James Marshall wrote to the Pastor from the Dardanelles, describing the brutal conditions, the scorching sun and cold nights, the pleasures and risks of sea bathing under shelling: ‘What we do miss is news from the outside world. Apart from tobacco and cigarettes this is the only comfort one can reasonably crave. Letters and mails have begun to arrive, the latest paper we have seen being April 28th, but this makes no mention of any definite move on the part of Greece or Italy.’
Sister May Turner wrote from number 25 General Hospital in France: ‘One poor fellow, a boy of 19 with his leg off, so good and patient, said the other night that he felt “winded” and if he was not better in the morning he thought he should “go sick”. He said it in joke but now he has an embolism and is dying, and his leg was healing so splendidly. Another of my men, a stretcher bearer with the RAMC, was shot through the shoulder while carrying; he continued with his burden to the field dressing tent, along with other wounded, including some German prisoners. While he was being attended to the Germans dropped a shell on the tent and everyone but himself was killed and he had his leg blown off. He took a tourniquet off a dead German and put it on his own leg and that saved his life. … We are still plagued with all sorts of creeping things. You sleep with earwigs and find them in your bath. They crawl out of everything you open, and say “how do you do” to you at every turn and crawl about all night. You find them in air-tight tins and wonder how on earth they got there. You think there’s a tea leaf in your cup and it’s another earwig, and they walk out of your shoes when you go to put them on.
Christmas 1915 saw 36 names on the Wilmslow Roll of Honour and 20 on the Morley one. The cost of sending parcels would be £35, twice that of the previous year, and gifts towards this were requested for the box in the vestibule.
An American visitor, Miss Cole, gave a talk to the Missionary Committee on the Armenian massacres and a collection was taken up for relief work.
Once again parcels produced a wave of thanks from the front:
‘I was delighted with the parcel I received from the Church. It is awfully good of the people to take so much trouble over us. I enjoyed the chocolate very much, and I shall find the waterproof wallet and match-box cover very useful.’
‘We are out at present for a few days’ rest and we find it a very nice change to get lapped in a blanket at nights in some nice clean straw. But the worst of it is it only lasts for a few days and then we have to return to our dug-out in the trench to be tormented with rats and mice as well as Germans.’
‘Since I saw you last I have been to France again and got my shoulder smashed with a bullet at Ypres, and also was gassed. But I am all right again except the gas, and it takes a long time before you get better of that stuff. I expect before long we shall be on our way to Serbia.’
In January 1916 Mr Turner, the Pastor, preached on ‘The Heroism of our British Youth’:
‘Fearlessness and courage are not the same thing…. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the conquest of fear….. We are hoping for peace. May it come soon! But there is a conflict from which there is no discharge. We were born into it and we shall be in it till we die. Such warfare calls for the grace of the utmost courage. Fears there will be, must be, for the heart is human, and often fails and faints. But in the will that is strengthened by Christ there is power to overcome fear, to turn weakness into strength, and to fight the good fight and to win the glorious victory over self and over sin.’
Morley received a letter home from Private T. B Worsley in France early in 1916:
‘I have had a very good Christmas considering the circumstances. We are out of the trenches now, and are living in pig cotes at present, but it is all right when you get plenty of clean straw and a blanket. It is quite a change from being in the trenches, sleeping with wet boots and socks, and sometimes in a wet dug-out. I don’t think that I shall be able to sleep for a few nights when I get into a real soft bed again. I shall wonder what has gone wrong with me.’
The following month saw the Sunday Evening Service stopped – due to the new blackout regulations – and switched to 2.30 in the afternoon instead.
Then, in July 1916 Morley Notes reported: ‘Very grave and anxious times are with us and we ask all the members of our congregation to attend more regularly at our services; to unite in prayer for our nation. All Morley people extend the hand of deepest sympathy to our dear friends, Mr and Mrs A A Gillies, of Alderley Edge, in their great loss by the death of their son, who was killed in France. No words can express how deep their sorrow is…’
In October 1916 Wilmslow’s new organist Arnold Perry was leaving, after only five months:
‘He has only been with us for a short time, but has already won his way with the members of the choir and congregation, especially with those who have personally come in contact with him when entertaining him in their homes on Sundays. Mr Perry has shown marked ability in his profession and received very favourable criticism on his public performances by the Musical Super-Critic of the ‘Manchester Guardian.’ ….It will fall to the deacons to make the best arrangements they can for carrying on the “service of praise”….. Mr Perry has been called up for military service because his work is not considered by the War Office of “national necessity”. This means that “the praises of Zion” must go by the board, to a large extent, whilst we thrash the Kaiser, who considers himself the mouthpiece of the Almighty and his chosen leader! It is a queer state of things indeed!’
News from the front was too grim to raise a smile. In November 1916 Church Notes said:
‘We deeply regret to report that Second Lieutenant Clifford Bolton has been officially reported as “missing “. He was last seen taking part in an attack upon a German trench. The attack was not successful, and when the men withdrew he was missing. He joined the 20th Battalion Royal Fusiliers (Public Schools) soon after the war broke out. In November 1915 he went to France with his battalion and last September he received a commission in the 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers.
It is, of course, quite possible that he may be a prisoner in the hands of the enemy. We tender our deepest sympathy to his parents and family in the painful suspense through which they are passing.’
Morley Notes for January 1917 had a sombre tone: ‘The opening of another year finds the area of the great war extended, and no real prospect of peace yet in sight. The forces engaged in the present strife are counted in millions, and the ruin of cities, the slaughter of men, the misery caused to women and children, have surpassed all precedent, yet still in all this terrible gloom and fear we must remember God’s former deliverance. Yesterday’s mercy ought to be a guarantee for mercy to-day. Yesterday’s kindness should keep our hearts warm in spite of today’s hardness. ‘Remember the years of the right hand of the Most High.’
We express our most grateful thanks on behalf of all our Morley soldiers and sailors to the committee of the Mother Church, which has for the third Christmas season again specially remembered our gallant men, by providing each with a most useful parcel. The undertaking has been most efficiently carried out, and our sincere thanks are due to all who have had any share in this kind act.’
By summer 1917 the war was taking its toll on everyone, as Church Notes showed:
‘We regret to report that official intimation has been received by Mr and Mrs J. B. Stark that their son, Private J. M Stark, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers, was wounded on April 23rd. No information has come to hand as to the hospital he is in or the nature of his wounds except that the captain of his company wrote to say that he was wounded in the back and had lain out all day before being picked up. At the time of writing this note nothing further is known, and we express our deepest sympathy with him and also with his parents and family in the extreme anxiety through which they are passing.
‘The Pastor will take a short holiday in June and will be absent on Sundays June 10th and 17th.’
Mr Turned returned from his holiday with renewed plans for teaching and bible study:
‘The Pastor has in mind the formation of a “Reading Circle” for biblical study. His idea is that some book should be chosen for private reading and study …and that those who join the Circle should meet together regularly, say once a fortnight, for the further exposition and discussion of the points which the book deals with. It is very necessary that thoughtful Christian people should read their Bibles with all the help and light which are available as the result of modern scholarship and historic methods of interpretation…The Pastor would be glad to hear during September from any who would like to join such a Circle and, while he has in view mainly the benefit of the younger people, membership of the Circle would not be limited to the young.’
News from the front included the war in the air in October 1917, as Church Notes reported:
We deeply regret to record that Second Lieutenant S. W. Dronsfield, R.F.C has been officially reported as missing since September 12th. After serving for some time with the Artists’ Rifles, he joined the Flying Corps, received a commission, and went out to France a little more than a month ago. He went out with a squadron over the German lines on September 12th and did not return. His C.O. pays a high tribute to him as a gallant and efficient officer and says that in all probability he was compelled to descend in enemy territory and was taken prisoner.
The Pastor’s Christmas sermon on ‘Emmanuel, God with us’, brought words of comfort and hope to the congregation and was printed in the January 1918 newsletter:
‘We have many a difficult task before us, many a hard place in the pathway, many a failure and discouragement. But the heart whispers to itself, “Emmanuel,” I cannot fulfil this task alone, but God and I can do it together. I cannot travel this way by myself, but God and I can travel it together. I cannot carry this load on my own back, but God and I can carry it together, and God will bear the heaviest end of it.
‘And God is with us to comfort? We need it sorely just now. The past year to many has been the hardest year of their lives. Bereavement, suspense, keen anxiety, fearful waiting for possible trouble. And the way in front of us is dark. Let us take this message with us as we go into the unknown – “Emmanuel”. Say it again and again until its syllables reverberate in the soul; print it upon the memory, engrave it upon the tablets of the heart. There is nothing in the world which can give us such impregnable courage and such unconquerable hope.’
Who can imagine what it was like to be minister of two congregations experiencing hardship and bereavement during the Great War? In April 1918 Mr Turner took time off:
‘The latest reports from the Rev. H. W. Turner indicate that he is benefitting from change of air and scene. At first he went to Harrogate but, finding it too cold, has now gone to Waterhead, Ambleside. There is little doubt that in these anxious and wearing times change of scene is even more important than change of air.’
The summer offensive of 1918 touched the people of Morley as the August newsletter showed: ‘It is now officially announced that Private John Sumner is killed, and not, as at first supposed, a prisoner of war. We deeply regret to lose another member of our Roll of Honour. We extend our heartfelt sympathy to the widow and all the bereaved, and trust that they may receive the consolation that he sacrificed his life for the freeing of the soul of the world.
Mrs. H. Knott conducted the Sunday evening service on July 7th, and delivered a most inspiring address.’
November’s newsletter went to print before the Armistice. It carried the sad news that Pastor and Mrs Turner’s son, Charles, had died. He had fought on the Ypres Salient and a few weeks earlier had chosen to give up his commission and revert to the ranks:
‘The Pastor, Mrs Turner and the family offer sincere thanks for the deep sympathy shown to them in the bereavement they have sustained by the loss of their son Charles, who died on October 17th at the 2nd Canadian Casualty Clearing Station of wounds received in action on October 8th, and was buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, near Poperinghe, in Belgium. Such expressions of sympathy have been a great consolation to them in their sorrow.
We will give the last word to the minister, Mr Turner, in his New Year message to the churches for 1919:
‘May the blessing of Almighty God rest upon us all in the year that is opening. May the trials and sorrows of the past produce in us fruits of faith, and patience, and humility. May the blessings of the past kindle within us the spirit of the deepest gratitude, and may the presence and power of Almighty God gird us with strength and wisdom for the tasks which lie before us. Yours in the bonds of service for Christ, Horace W. Turner’.
Sunday 28th October 2018
Jeremiah 31: 7-9 and Mark 10: 46-52
None of us in the group with him – women or men – ever knew for certain what was going to happen next. At any point. That’s what being on the road with Jesus was always like. One shock after another – another day, another challenge to our expectations and assumptions. Of course, he would say things to the male disciples on their own which the rest of didn’t hear, but we could see their faces and read their body language afterwards. And that final visit to Jericho felt different to all of us, I think. There was a heaviness in the air – a sense of foreboding – a feeling of risk and danger. We’d been in the area for some time, since Jesus and our whole group of followers had moved south down the Jordan valley away from his usual stamping ground in Galilee. He’d been teaching and preaching on the other side of the river but on that morning in Jericho we knew he was about to head south west for Jerusalem. It wasn’t going to be an easy walk over the mountains and none of us knew what to expect when we arrived. I was wrapped up in my own thoughts, walking along the road, when the blind man first burst into my consciousness. It wasn’t as though you could miss him – talk about ‘those who have ears to hear, let them hear’. Bartimaeus was shouting his head off: ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ I admired his guts. After all, being sat on the ground behind a solid row of legs – the people in the crowd in front of him – isn’t the best way to get the Teacher’s attention. He’d come up with a great phrase to attract Jesus’s attention – ‘Son of David’ – new leader of our people in the line of the great king of old. It wasn’t the safest thing to be shouting at the top of your voice in the middle of country occupied by Roman troops but it worked. Jesus heard him and stopped dead, so all the rest of us ground to a halt too.
This man was persistent, I could see that at once. He’d got his message through, despite the folk in front who’d been trying to shut him up, and now everyone was looking at him. He must have sensed that sudden attention on him. I wonder how long it had been since anyone had taken any notice of him at all. The people round him switched in seconds from being human barriers to urging him on – I don’t suppose Jesus missed that quick change either. He never failed to notice the two-faced way so many people behave. Incredibly, though, he still seemed to love the good in all of us and somehow trust that by God’s grace we could change, despite our faults and failings being so obvious. Bartimaeus was up off his cloak – his home on the side of the street – in a flash and was helped to stand in front of the Master. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’, Jesus asked him. I’ll never forget those words. Who else but Jesus would say something like that to a person with no sight? You might think, if you’d never met him, that Jesus was being unkind or ignorant asking a question like that but that would be a serious misunderstanding of him. It was the sort of thing he asked all of us, at different moments in our journey with him, when we needed him most. Usually it wasn’t in the middle of a busy main street with lots of other people listening in though. Bartimaeus wasn’t phased by all of the attention. He knew what he wanted. He asked Jesus for his sight back. ‘So he must have seen at some point in his life,’ I thought, when I heard that. It wasn’t that he’d always been confined to the side of the street, begging desperately from the passers by every day to get the money to keep body and soul together.
Jesus just looked at him with an expression of real compassion on his face and said, very simply: ‘Go, your faith has made you well.’ There it was again, that word we’d been hearing for several years every time something like this happened, and someone came to him in deep distress. I’d always thought, before I met Jesus and started travelling with the group of women who accompanied him, that faith was what the people who went to synagogue every Sabbath had. In that case, I knew I’d lost mine, because for years I hadn’t felt comfortable during the service so I’d stopped going. I didn’t feel worthy of God’s love. My life was in too much of mess, I had too many guilty secrets to believe that God could ever be bothered with me again. Jesus had changed all that for me which was why, like so many others, I’d felt the call to travel around with him. Somebody needed to help find beds for the night every time we turned up in a town or village. Somebody had to go around door to door begging for flour and vegetables and oil to make a simple supper. We women were used to asking for help and we did it willingly because it meant we could keep on hearing what Jesus was saying, keep on seeing what he was doing, keep on being in the same space as him, breathing the same air, holding on to the life we knew God was giving us through him.
It was only much later, after everything that happened in Jerusalem when we got there from Jericho, that I started to realise all the other times when I’d heard Jesus perform a healing and talk about faith. There was that healing right at the beginning, before I joined the group, when some friends let their paralysed mate down through the roof on a stretcher so Jesus would heal him. Jesus told the disciples later that it was the faith of those guys – their determination to get his attention on behalf of their friend – that moved him most. He had to do something in response.
Then there was that occasion on the streets in Capernaum, the moment I’d witnessed and which had changed my life. A woman touched the hem of Jesus’s garment and was cured of a persistent bleeding. He called her ‘daughter’ – such a lovely way to speak to her – and he said: ‘your faith has made you well.’ Had it? Could it? Well it certainly looked as though something remarkable had changed within her in those few, dramatic moments on the main street in Capernaum. And what about that healing which happened behind closed doors, miles away up north in the region around Tyre, when a foreign woman came and asked Jesus to heal her sick daughter? What faith she had – to speak to a foreigner, a man, a teacher from another faith, someone who could easily have thrown her out of the door rather than help her! But Jesus had seen the truth in her, the love and the risk. He restored her daughter to health without even seeing the girl or touching her. Just a word. That was all it took. And a universe full of mercy and love to go with it, of course.
I wondered, that day in Jericho, whether Bartimaeus knew anything about these people and all the others who’d been healed in the past few years by Jesus. Surely he must have heard something about them or he wouldn’t have known how important it was to get Jesus to give him attention that day. What I wasn’t expecting – none of us were I think – was that Bartimaeus would choose to come along with us. He didn’t even bother to pick up his cloak and take the day’s takings. He just started to walk with us – well, totter might be a better description. He hadn’t been on his feet for years, judging by how weedy and thin his legs were, and he clearly wasn’t fit for walking. But there was no stopping him. Jesus had dismissed him by saying ‘Go, your faith has made you well’ but unlike the woman in Capernaum who’d gone home to her family aas soon as she could when she was healed Bartimaeus kept on hanging around Jesus. It was just as well for him that we women took him under our wing. Without us I don’t know how he’d have managed the walk or what we all saw when we got to Jerusalem. We knew he was another of Jesus’s outcasts – his ‘specials’ we used to call them – just like most of us women. He’d been poked fun at, abused, forgotten, kicked and shouted at for years. Nobody had noticed him until Jesus came along. And it wasn’t just that we’d all been put right, helped to get our lives back, loved into wholeness – we also got the message from Jesus that God has an enormous amount of extra love for those who everyone else overlooks. Jesus wasn’t just quoting the prophets – he was putting their sayings into action, every day.
It was supporting one another that gave us the strength to stay with Jesus once the first few, exciting days in Jerusalem turned into a dark and terrifying nightmare. ‘When Jesus has given you your sight back, you can’t choose to look away once bad things start happening to him’. I remember Bartimaeus saying that when Jesus was arrested and put on trial. We women knew that was true of us as well. We stayed, right to the end, and watched from a distance even as they crucified him. And we kept being together after he’d been buried too, and the grave was found empty. That was months ago. Now we know that even though he died he’s still with us – his Spirit is here keeping us strong, helping us to live in the way he showed us. It’s as though he’s the one now who’s choosing to walk with us, not the other way round. And he’s still in our hearts and minds, making us all think about our faith, what it means to trust God, how to help the outcasts and the rejects and the lonely, forgotten ones, just like he always did. Bartimaeus walks well now and he’s always talking about Jesus. He isn’t scared who he talks to or how many times he gets rejected by people who won’t listen. There’s no stopping him now.
Sunday 21st October 2018
Job 38: 1-7 and Mark 10: 35-45
What’s a nice church like this doing with a messed up Bible story like that of Job? I overheard it being said at a meeting yesterday – it’s often said in fact by faithful, serious Christians – that the Old Testament is full of wrath and destruction. The implication is that we shouldn’t bother with it. Better to forget about the big chunk at the start of the Bible and start at the good bit, in the New Testament, when Jesus is born and things might be seen as being less blood and guts, less hellfire and violent. But I’ve got real problems with that approach. For one thing, it means we can’t make sense of the things Jesus comes to fulfil and put right. If you come into the middle of a story, and you don’t know how the plot has got to this point, how do you make sense of the main character? For another thing, there’s much that I love in the Old Testament, even if it challenges me and confuses me. We can’t jettison it and claim our place in the family of those three major faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – which honour Abraham, Moses, the prophets and worship one God, even if they do so in different ways. Any visitor to Jerusalem, or avid follower of documentaries about the Middle East, will know how closely intertwined the roots of the three Abrahamic faiths are.
Let’s agree just for now that it’s worthwhile taking the Old Testament seriously. That means ploughing through a lot of history, a great deal of prophetic writing, the poetry of the psalms, some surprisingly suggestive love poetry and several lengthy codes of religious law. After all that we’re still left with some books that don’t seem to fit into any category. They’re not factual reporting but they must be there for a reason, to teach us something about God and how to live. Job is one of those. It sets the scene with a classic story of all being right with the world. Job, the hero of our story, has everything going for him. He is blameless, upright, principled, God-fearing and just the sort of person you’d go to for help if you had him living next door. He and his wife have seven sons and three daughters. That’s a clear sign of blessing in a culture that would have valued male heirs above female offspring. He is also wealthy – owning 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 she donkeys and a large number of slaves. ‘Thus Job was the greatest man in all the East’. (Job 1.3).
But things are about to go wrong for Job. He loses all of his wealth as his animals are slaughtered in acts of violence and natural disaster. Then, in terrifying succession and almost in the same breath, a message arrives to say his children have all died as the house in which they were eating was struck by a whirlwind. Job’s faith survives that onslaught but the next crisis comes even nearer to home. As if it were not enough for him to be deprived of all his worldly assets, including his nearest and dearest, he now experiences agonising personal isolation in the company of friends. At first they don’t know what to say. That’s not so bad. Job has no words for what’s happened. They sit alongside him in silence for seven days and nights, sharing his grief. When Job speaks and they respond they prove to be troublesome company. The phrase ‘Job’s comforters’ still conveys the sort of support we don’t need, thank you very much, offered with words and actions that don’t really help us.
Aren’t you supposed be ‘Mr Super Faithful?’, they ask him in effect. The underlying implication of their exchanges with poor, beleaguered Job, is that maybe despite appearances he has been secretly disobeying God and this is come uppance. Job bewails his fate, looking back wistfully to ‘the old days’ before all of these disasters hit him. A fourth so called friend appears to give Job his six pennyworth of advice too. We’ve got to the end of chapter 37 and still there’s been no word from God. I remember a phrase my mother used to use, when she was feeling particularly oppressed by life. She used to describe it as feeling as though ‘God is using me for target practice’. Job feels that. He’s tried to hold onto his faith, despite the horrific trials he’s been through, but God has not intervened to save him distress or let him know he’s there for him. Now, suddenly, God speaks.
But, amazingly, in the passage we heard read earlier on God doesn’t start by answering Job direct. He doesn’t either release Job from his feeling of being in the dock or answer his questions as to why all these terrible things have happened. Instead God tells Job to ‘brace yourself’. The original translation would have been ‘gird up your loins’, words which somehow have a lot more power and mystery in them. Girding up your loins is something you have to do before going into battle, as Samuel experiences in 2 Samuel 22: 40 – ‘You gird me with strength for the battle’, he tells God. It’s something you do before tackling a difficult task. When God calls the prophet Jeremiah and sends him out with an unpopular message to the Israelites he tells him: ‘Brace yourself, Jeremiah: stand up and speak to them. Tell them everything I bid you; when you confront them do not let your spirit break.’ (Jeremiah 1. 17). Job is facing a difficult task. He is going to hear how God, the maker of heaven and earth, has charge of all creation. This is the song we sometimes sing – ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’ – in action. God is not rebuking Job. He’s restoring their intimacy and Job’s perspective.
The big task Job faces is to try and see the world in a different way, through God’s eyes not his own. Job, under all the pressure of events, has kept on asking whether God has been asleep on the job, has dozed off and left him unprotected and in deep distress. The God who has set the earth on its foundations, who has fixed the stars in place, who has placed boundaries on the sea and who gives us each new day as a gift does still have things in balance, held together in love and wisdom. The story of Job is there not so much to tell us about human suffering in its most extreme forms as it is to remind us about the faithfulness of God.
Have you ever had an experience which has caused you to reach the end of your tether? And, if so, have you stood in the dark and looked at the stars in the heavens, or walked along the sea shore, or climbed a mountain and found some sort of peace as a result? There are plenty of truths that, in the words of Fred Pratt Green’s wonderful hymn For the fruits of all creation ‘still confound us’ both as individuals and as communities and nations. Yet somehow we cling on in there, by God’s grace, through the love of Jesus. When I face another challenging and seemingly unsolvable problem this week I’ll try to remember that.
Sunday 7th October 2018
Genesis 2: 18-24 and Mark 10: 2-16
Sometimes a reading from the Bible suggested by the Lectionary for a given Sunday has so much potential for being misunderstood and misapplied that you need to think twice before using it. Today, we’ve got two readings that can cause problems – the gospel passage from Mark and this creation myth from Genesis in the Old Testament. The Genesis reading is one that was transformed for me almost 40 years ago when I heard a marvellous lecture on it from a renowned American scholar called Phyllis Trible. She demonstrated how the way people have read a passage of the Bible for thousands of years may be seriously wrong – not an interpretation that reveals the truth about God but one that gives God a bad name and causes problems for humanity too.
Let’s get a few things sorted out at the start. I am not a creationist and the URC does not teach that the Bible must be taken literally. What we try to do is bring God’s word to life for God’s people today by getting under the surface of scripture. We try to explain it, understand when it was written and for whom, and then ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand what it may mean for us now. The two creation stories at the start of Genesis were first written down – the scholars think – about 700 years before the time of Jesus. They are alternative ways of casting light on how things began and what God is like. Any belief system needs a creation story – it’s how you identify yourself and introduce people to your god or gods. These early Jewish myths show interesting parallels to the myths of other religions around them at the time, especially the Babylonian ones. The two versions look like one in our printed Bibles but the end of the first and start of the second is actually at Chapter 2, verse 4. They are probably the work of two powerful groups – Genesis chapter 1 talks about ‘God’ and was probably written by the priestly group who were in charge of the Temple. In today’s reading from Genesis chapter 2 on we’re hearing about ‘the Lord God’ from the second source or strand of the tradition. It’s a poem about relationships, about life and death, about how human beings can cooperate in the world for good or for ill. It’s not a literal account of how things came to be but it has within it some challenging ideas that can – if we wish – open our hearts and minds to relate to our reality in new ways.
There’s humour here, too, though in the English translation it’s hard to see that. At the graveside or more often today in the crematorium we hear the words ‘dust to dust, ashes to ashes’. Here’s the origin of that phrase. The Lord God – ‘Yahweh God’ in the Hebrew – begins by making an earth creature – ‘adam’ – from the earth – ‘ha-dama’. Nothing gets going until God breathes life into the earth creature. There’s not even been any rain yet, to start things growing. Now, in a few verses, we learn a lot about what God is like as life breather, dust transformer, gardener and planner of a garden ‘away to the east’.
At the point where today’s reading takes up the story the earth creature – adam – has been put in a garden and told by Yahweh God that he can eat any fruit from the trees there, apart from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now Yahweh God makes the earth creature other living things from the earth – animals and birds – to which the earth creature is introduced. It’s a funny episode. ‘Here’s some potential partners for you,’ says God. ‘What do you think of them? What should they be called?’ The earth creature names them all but doesn’t find a suitable partner – not amongst the animals or the birds. As if we’d expect that to be possible anyway. It’s a joke – a light-hearted sequence about God giving hope of a companion – ‘a partner suited to him’ – which ends with the earth creature still dissatisfied. Is God teasing the earth creature? Is God learning on the job as creator? Up to this point the Hebrew hasn’t specified any gender for the earth creature but here, for the first time, we get the emergence of another, the woman made from the earth creature’s ribs. The Hebrew word for the man is ‘is’, and for the woman ‘issa’. The two words are related – just as the earth and the earth creature – ha-dama and adam are related. Living things and creatures of all kinds are now in place, through God’s agency, and things can begin. The myth will move on to explain how things now go wrong.
So how is it that over the years this creation story has been used to create so much division in the world? In the days of organised witch hunts, this passage and teaching based upon one theological way of seeing it, were used as justification for persecuting, torturing and killing unknown numbers of women. Women have been seen as the ‘weaker sex’, as intellectually suspect, as emotionally unstable and as unreliable witnesses. They still are – in many societies and in many situations. This drama plays out now in the way people relate to the confirmation as a Supreme Court judge in the United States of a man accused of inappropriate sexual advances towards women. Do you believe a woman’s testimony or not? Are women to be trusted? Are they manipulative, crafty, malicious or plain misguided? Is the ‘Me Too’ movement to be taken seriously or not?
Part of the problem could be the way we’ve understood and translated the word that’s given as ‘partner’ in the Revised English Bible. Yahweh God wants to find a companion for the earth creature, adam. The word used to translate this word in the King James Version, ‘helpmeet’, might have been more understandable and helpful in the 17th century but it still doesn’t quite convey the full meaning of the original Hebrew now. What we should be seeing and hearing in this passage is not a hierarchy whereby man came first and God gives him a junior partner by creating woman but a relationship of equals. The woman is there to help the man. That too, of course, can be understood with a subtle sense of standing on a lower level built into it. We can guess that this wasn’t the intention of the original writers because being a helper is not a subordinate role in the Hebrew scriptures. In fact, it’s the highest and most significant role possible. The people of God understand God to be Israel’s helper. Psalm 115, verse 9 says: ‘But Israel trusts in the Lord: he is their help and their shield.’ We’re not supposed to hear a condescending ‘Santa’s little helper’, or ‘Mummy’s little treasure’ sort of underlying message in woman being man’s helper, companion, and partner. We’re to hear a vision of sharing, of mutuality, of wholeness and respect. This unity and affinity between women and men is not what we human beings have lived out over the centuries, but it is there in the words of Genesis chapter 2 if you care to look for it. Now we’re understanding new ways of recognising partnerships and gender identities. The question is whether they promote love and wholeness for the people concerned and are based on mutuality and respect rather than exploitation of one by another. The church has been slow to face the challenge of what’s happening around us in the world. If the writers of this creation story were around now perhaps they could help us to be more imaginative and playful and open in our thinking, listening and exploration.
We don’t need to reclaim this passage simply to restore better understanding of relationships and gender politics. We also need to look at what it says about our attitude towards creation. It is suddenly – belatedly – dawning on us now that everything we do as human beings has an effect on our beautiful, wonderfully balanced, mysterious planet. We may think we’re in charge – that the fun of giving names to other living things which is part of this creation story means we can do what we like from now on. The reality is that we are destroying ha-dama – the earth – and the results are showing themselves to be increasingly dangerous for all living things and the environment too.
For me this creation story teaches us something about the meaning of wholeness and mutuality for our world. Around us we keep on seeing new fissures opening up to keep people apart. We need to find ways of combating that brokenness. The message of this piece of Hebrew scripture deserves to be looked at carefully and taken seriously in the way we live here and now.
Sunday 30th September 2018
Mark 9: 38-50 and James 5: 13-20
Sometimes you have a conversation with a person who seems to have been asleep for several years and has finally woken up. You get that feeling because they’re talking about things which are way out of date. Life has moved on fast. I had a conversation like that last week about our church buildings. ‘Have you all decided to knock everything down and start again?’ was pretty much the questioner’s opening shot. I was rocked back on my feet. Admittedly about 5 years ago – when the developers were first trying to get planning permission for the flats next door – this person and I had had a ‘blue sky’ sort of chat. I’d speculated about what sort of building the church needed if we were able to start again from the ground up, and if so whether the front corner of the site was necessarily be the best place to build. As we all know, things took another direction. Those for whom this building represents too much to imagine it being replaced by a new one clearly outnumbered the ‘let’s start again’ group. We have since invested a lot of time and resources in securing the future of this building and transforming downstairs into a modern, flexible space, with pretty spectacular results for anyone who remembers how it looked and felt and above all smelled beforehand.
Where had the person who asked me that question last week been for the past two years, I wonder? I invited them to come in sometime and see the Undercroft in action. If and when they do, perhaps they’ll start to understand why it feels such an important space for what we’re now trying to do and be as a church. For one thing, it’s a place where people pray, and that always has an effect on the atmosphere of somewhere. You know how, when you buy a special product, the label goes into great detail about how it’s been prepared and matured – wine that’s been aged in oak vats, cheese that’s been matured in caves – that sort of thing. Followers of Jesus who have somewhere special to pray allow God to create a ‘feel’, a spiritual focus, in that place which touches people even though they can’t explain why. In the Bolton town centre church I served before coming here we used to have Wednesday morning prayers with anyone who wanted to come along from the mental health day centre. There was a particular patch of carpet in the church where the sunshine would pour through the stained glass windows and make a warm spot within the large worship area. It felt well prayed in because we’d sat there, week by week, year after year. Circling the chairs and sitting down together for no more than 20 minutes each Wednesday created space for sharing, caring and prayer together. We’d hear about who was doing alright, who was having a bad week, who was causing concern because they’d decided to stop their tablets or do something their friends feared was going to make them unwell. We prayed, regularly, and it helped to create a sense of community, of putting people in God’s hands, of admitting that we don’t have all or sometimes any of the answers.
‘Is anyone among you in trouble? Let him pray.’ the letter of James says. Did you know that our friends from Life Church worship once a month on a Wednesday evening in our Undercroft? They’ve prayed in a few places since their church began about 5 years ago. They had a time in Chorley Village Hall, then a hotel near the airport, then upstairs at the Coach and Four, and about 3 years ago they started meeting in the upstairs of Revolution on Sunday mornings. It’s one thing to be church in a bar before midday on Sundays – when most possible customers are still having a lie in – but you can’t easily have a prayer meeting on a Wednesday evening in a cocktail bar. There’s too much noise – too much else going on. So they sing, and pray and catch up and dream together in the space below us here. And there’s other prayers being offered up in that space too. We’ll pray at the start of the Wilmslow Youth Oversight Team meeting on Tuesday afternoon. Matt and Gemma pray together as they support one another in their involvement with young people. Churches Together in Wilmslow have met and prayed in the space. We had Lent Groups there this year. One of the things we’ve yet to explore for the new café space is how we can make it more than a place to eat biscuits and drink tea or coffee. Anyone can run a café like that. But a church offering space can do more – we can offer as well as the food and drink a welcome, a smile and a conversation if somebody wants to take it up. These are all signs of God’s love. They can make an enormous difference. Loneliness is one of the biggest challenges our society faces now. Some of the people who come to the GPs around us here in this part of town are not so much ill as lonely. There’s a Christian charity based in Nottingham called Renew Wellbeing, which helps churches to make their cafes into places that build community and combat the sense of isolation so many people experience. I would love the Undercroft to become a place where it’s ‘OK not to be OK’ – that’s Renew Wellbeing’s slogan – somewhere that helps people to feel cared for and cared about. That doesn’t mean whisking people away from their cappuchino to sit in a darkened room and say a prayer every five minutes! It may mean training all of us – as customers and volunteer helpers – in new ways of thinking about how to offer friendship, support and sometimes an offer of a prayer space to people who come in looking for more than just a hot drink and a sit down.
Prayer can and does changes lives. But sometimes we need to respond to what’s happening in our bodies more directly – in a way people can touch and see. When you go around the gift shops in Israel and Palestine you can buy bottles of so-called ‘holy oil’, with different perfumes sometimes to increase the profile and the price of the product. Using oil to help massage sore muscles, to reduce skin inflammation, to help a painful spot to heal, continues to be familiar practice even now when we have so many more medical tools than they did in the first century. Anointing with oil is a valuable accompaniment to prayer, though it’s one we may shy away from in our part of the church because we may still associate it with times centuries ago when many people relied as much on superstitions and magic as on faith and understanding. We don’t do that now, of course, do we! Our society doesn’t peddle strange cures any more, or sell ideas to desperately sick people that rely on blind obedience to weird rituals and practices to make you well does it?!
‘Is one of you ill? Let him send for the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord’ we read in the letter of James. Don’t worry. Elders’ meeting tomorrow night is not about to start yet another rota for that job, to sit alongside all the other lists we currently have. But I do believe we’ll grow as a church when we start to be more open to the ways in which God’s Holy Spirit can and does touch and change us when we’re open to the possibilities of things not staying the same, and that the way things are on the surface does not tell the whole story about our minds, bodies and spirits.
Being prayerful, promoting healing – and finally, emphasising forgiveness. Here’s the recipe for a healthy Christian community the writer of James recommends. In the past week I’ve watched two very different documentaries about young people’s lives in Britain now. One focussed on mental health for teenagers and the other on jobs for young people in the former steel town of Redcar, on the north east coast. Neither of them said anything explicitly about forgiveness – they talked about all sorts of other things in telling the stories of the young people on whom they focussed. But underneath I can’t help feeling that forgiveness is a key missing element in the way we bring up the next generations. If we can’t help young people to learn how to forgive others, to be forgiven by them and above all as they grow in years and hopefully wisdom to forgive themselves then they and we are in real trouble. Underneath the troubling patterns of self-harm the documentaries profiled – self harm which takes all sorts of forms and probably lurks behind the ‘couldn’t care less’ message given off by some of the youngsters who were going off the rails – I wonder if a deep absence of forgiveness is actually part of the problem. ‘I’ve messed up again. I can’t rely on myself so I can’t rely on others either. I’m a waste of space. I don’t deserve anything better. I can’t start again because what I’ve done is too bad – I’m too far gone.’ Forgiveness speaks a different language – a language of new beginnings, of turning things around, of breaking old patterns and substituting new. That’s the way healing, prayerful communities live and operate. It sounds like a good way to be – not just on this site but wherever we are and whoever we’re with. It’s the model Jesus shows us. Let’s try doing it a bit more.
Sunday 23rd September 2018
James 3: 13 – 4: 3, 7-8a
Where do people go for wise advice in today’s world, I wonder? Twelve years or more ago, the Bible Society did research which showed that more people in our society consulted the Ikea catalogue than the Bible. That was then. Now, the rise of social media, internet coverage and powerful hand-held research tools (otherwise known as mobile phones) means we can all go around finding out the answers to whatever question is bugging us at the moment within an instant. If we don’t discover what we want immediately then we work out how to ‘refine our search’, in the jargon. If that doesn’t work then we use another search engine and – nine times out of ten – the answer we’re searching for will ping into place within seconds. Problem solved.
If only things were really that easy! But they never have been, never are and never will be, in all likelihood. Part of becoming a follower of Jesus is about discovering who to go to when we need to make wise decisions in our lives. That is always one of the toughest discipleship learning curves of all to encounter. We may wear a WWJD wrist band and be good at asking ourselves ‘What would Jesus do?’ at critical moments, but even that doesn’t guarantee we’ll come up with the right answer. Alternative thoughts, short cuts, methods that don’t bear close examination in the full light of day – all these are signs of our flawed and broken human natures which are always in the frame. Doing it God’s way, not ours, takes a lot more time, commitment, sacrifice and energy than we’re sometimes up for mustering. Architects, town planners, highway engineers, product designers, people who operate any large sites which others use in significant numbers, managers of all sorts and shapes and sizes in fact, know this full well. The good ones set up systems in hope, but ask themselves all the time ‘What could go wrong here? How will people try to get around this route I’ve set up and do things more quickly and conveniently?’ Look at how most of us prefer to march across the edge of the grass – so the turf gets worn away – rather than using the proper pathway which would take us just a few seconds longer. It keeps the conservation experts and countryside volunteers at full stretch every winter in all the national parks that throughout the summer we keep on going off the proper paths in search of a quicker way.
The writer of the letter of James directs his good advice towards how to live well together and where to find wisdom to a young Christian community. Tradition has it that the author is James the brother of Jesus, in which case it would have been written before AD 70 as that was the date by which James the brother of Jesus was known to have been martyred. We can tell the writer is tailoring his ideas for an audience of converts from Judaism, because he assumes his hearers will know the Hebrew scriptures well. In fact, much of the letter has echoes of the Wisdom writings in the Hebrew scriptures – the book of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus. Today’s reading begins at the point in the epistle which has been describing the dangers of an unruly tongue. Now the focus changes to the contrast between wise leadership, fed by ‘wisdom from above’, in contrast to behaviour influenced by ‘the world’, which puts you in opposition to God, the writer says. The signs of God-given wisdom are listed: ‘the wisdom from above is in the first place pure; and then peace-loving, considerate, and open-minded; it is straightforward and sincere, rich in compassion and in deeds of kindness that are its fruit. Peace is the seed-bed of righteousness and the peacemakers will reap its harvest.’ (James 3.17 on)
‘Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called God’s children’, says Jesus to a large crowd of people who come to hear his teaching. Our world could certainly do with a bit of God’s wisdom-fed, righteousness-building peacemaking just now. Everywhere we look we find examples of peace without justice which certainly don’t seem stable or likely to last. They might be better described as ‘the absence of war’ rather than true peace. The latest proposal to end the Syrian civil war is that the last rebel and opposition stronghold around Idlib in the north should be surrounded by a 9 to 12 miles deep demilitarised zone controlled by government and Russian troops. If all the fighters within the region give up their weapons by October 10th, and radical groups withdraw within 5 days after that, a final, horrific slaughter which could kill thousands of the 3 million civilians also living in the rebel-controlled territory near the Turkish border might just be avoided. The world finds itself in the incredible position of having to rely on the honesty and goodwill of three questionable leaders, who have cooked up this deal between them and all have something to gain from it. One, President Putin of Russia, has been cynically using the Syrian civil war to build his country’s influence in the Middle East in recent years with worrying success. The second is disgraced Syrian President Assad, who is known to have massacred thousands of his own people during the war’s eight-year history so far, and could one day be in the dock for war crimes. The third is Turkish President Erdogan, hardly known as a champion of democracy and freedom, who has warned that Idlib could become a ‘lake of blood’. He is trying to prevent another mass exodus of refugees from war torn Syria into neighbouring Turkey but can hardly be relied on as a source of truth, transparent leadership and calm. We need to pray for those international leaders and diplomats who can remind this trio of Presidents about the virtues of restraint, accountability and their duty to protect the civilians caught up in this situation, especially the weakest and most vulnerable with no voice.
Before we’re tempted to think that such terrible events never happen within the life of the church we do well to recognise that church history tells us another story. Last year’s 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation brought back into focus some of the violent and bloody history that took place in Europe as a result of that religious movement, between Protestants and Catholics. The writer of James certainly seems to be as much focussed on the need to tackle conflict between members of the church community as in the world around them. Yesterday some of us were at a safeguarding training event for volunteers from our church, Life Church and those who help with Wilmslow Youth’s after school cafes. It was very worthwhile. One thing it reminded us of very vividly is that churches are not immune from abuse and are particularly difficult places in which to tackle the problems. Why is that? We were asked that question several times at various points in the two and half hour session. On our table was a volunteer who helps with Wilmslow Youth but doesn’t attend a church. She seemed a little hesitant to speak on this, in front of me and a fellow volunteer who attends Life Church, but she did remark that perhaps people in church thought they were good and couldn’t therefore ask awkward questions about one another’s behaviour. Spot on! That’s exactly what we’re like. Its one of the reasons why helping churches to become safer spaces – our trainer warned us not to say ‘safe’ because nowhere is truly able to claim that label – takes so much effort and is never something we fully achieve. Being ‘nice’ to one another doesn’t build justice and safety for everyone. Not saying things, not naming evils, not addressing the deep-seated problems we encounter in our struggle to follow Jesus together, doesn’t help us to stay healthy and allow the Holy Spirit room to transform our hearts, minds and actions. As some churches grow smaller and weaker we become less honest about the issues we confront because we’re frightened to rock the boat. We also find ourselves in conflicted positions very often that we don’t name openly – situations where we can’t speak without internal bias because that person’s our friend, or that minister trained in the same college as someone whose behaviour needs challenging, or we’re related to someone who’s got influence over a decision or has just made a speech about it.
One way the church in different parts of the world has tried to address differences between people about controversial subjects recently is the use of consensus decision making. We use a mini version of this in our elders and church meetings – the orange and blue indicator cards. You show a blue card if you do not agree with something that’s been said or see an issue that’s not yet been raised. You show an orange card if you agree with what’s been said. Consensus decision making divides the church too. Some leaders love it, others think it takes far too long and is too costly in terms of time and people when you have to try and get agreement instead of going with a majority vote. I found it a hard thing to learn how to do – chairing meetings this way – but now I do it naturally without thinking and value the way it builds unity when we get it right. Conflict is always going to be there – in our world, in the church, within our thoughts and emotions internally too. The challenge is how do we deal with it in a way that God can honour and bless? The world needs another model – let’s give the teaching of James a try.
Sunday 9th September 2018
Isaiah 35: 4-7a and Mark 7: 24-37
We’re back on our journey through Mark’s gospel today, and off on our travels too. One teacher at my junior school would start the lesson by drawing the simplest of maps to illustrate the Holy Land. Galilee in the north, the sea of Galilee at the centre of the region, the long narrow line of the river Jordan running south to the Dead Sea and the city of Jerusalem at the heart of the country were all drawn within seconds. The gospel of Mark has so far shown us Jesus operating solely up north in Galilee. He’s made just one short excursion into the foreign territory of the Gerasenes on the opposite side of the lake from his home base in Capernaum. Last week’s passage showed him in debate with pharisees and scribes who’d travelled north from the temple in Jerusalem to debate with him what makes you clean or unclean in religious terms. Now he wants a break, so he travels right outside his normal area of operations to the far northern region of Tyre. I think the gospel writer expects us to notice that by leaving Jewish territory Jesus is now choosing to go somewhere ‘unclean’, having just conducted a public debate about purity coming from within us rather than from keeping religious rules. Looking for some time out up north, he tries to remain unrecognised by staying indoors. Even in this clearly non-Jewish Gentile territory, word gets out that the teacher and healer from Nazareth is a guest. He receives a visit ‘almost at once’, says the gospel, from a local woman seeking help.
We’ve seen Jesus already, in Mark, being approached for help by women without the presence of a male relative – something deeply shocking for the culture of the day. It was on the streets of Capernaum, as he went to see the sick daughter of Jairus the synagogue official, that a woman had come up and touched the hem of his garment seeking healing. That was a public place. Here, he’s approached by a woman in private, arriving unannounced without her husband or anyone to chaperone her, and speaking to him direct as she begs him to heal her sick daughter. There are lots of things about this encounter that could cause Jesus to think twice. For one thing, he’s made the journey to Tyre for a rest, seeking space and time to relax and think. The last thing he now wants is to be approached by someone wanting help as soon as he arrives. Then there’s the fact he’s being lobbied for help by a woman on her own, in private, which will get people talking as they always do. To cap it all she’s a Gentile, and so represents several things Jesus would not be used to finding in his normal Galilean stamping ground. She is Syrophoenician, which means her ancestors were out and out enemies of the Jewish people centuries earlier. To cap it all she has a daughter who is possessed by an unclean spirit, the gospel says, so the girls is presumably behaving in agitated and challenging ways that disturb and unsettle those who meet her. Mark told us in chapter 3 that people were saying the same things of Jesus himself, earlier in his ministry, and that his own family had been worried about his sanity and health.
This woman in Tyre with a sick child has a quick brain and a sharp tongue too, which she deploys to powerful effect with Jesus at once. He’s hardly had time to register her arrival in the house before she begs him to heal her daughter. The gospel has shown Jesus healing a variety of people already but never, up to this point, when they’re not present in the same place as him. We sometimes hear this story told in terms of a dialogue between Jesus, the Jewish insider, and this woman who is a Syrophoenician, a Gentile, and so an outsider. But remember the geography of where this is happening. She’s on home territory and Jesus the Jew from Galilee is the foreigner in this exchange. She’s the one with all the arguments and he’s the one who may be temporarily floored by her theological agility. I don’t think we should get too hung up on Jesus’s comparison of those for whom God has provided bread – the children of Israel – and those other non-Jewish people who aren’t yet God’s priority for feeding. Jesus is quoting a Jewish saying but that doesn’t make it any less potentially offensive to our ears. What we should notice, I think, is the brilliant way the woman responds to his statement. She doesn’t get defensive and hit back with an unpleasant comment. She doesn’t give up and leave at once. She doesn’t weep and go for the sympathy vote by manipulative behaviour. She counters with a strength and clarity that ring out over the millennia that separate us from her: ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.’ In effect she’s asking : ‘Aren’t we Gentiles important to God too?’ Jesus responds to her courage and insight. ‘For saying that, go, and you will find the demon has left your daughter.’ She does. And it has.
There’s a hint here that something has changed inside Jesus, and his sense of God’s priorities, as a result of this exchange. I think that shows in the way he comes back home via the Decapolis, visiting Sidon as he does so. Sidon is north of Tyre, midway up the coast towards modern Beirut in Lebanon, so further from home than he’s been so far. The Decapolis region centres on ten cities whose population is not mainly Jewish but of very mixed, on the far south eastern side of the lake from Capernaum. It’s not on the direct back to Galilee.
Here he meets a deaf man who is cut off from those around him by his inability to hear. He transforms the man’s life in terms of hearing and speech. The news of this healing gets out in a new region, though Jesus tries to stop it doing so, but to little effect.
I take three things from these stories of healing which speak to my sense of where we are as a Christian community, just about to start a new stage in our journey together this autumn. The first point is the importance of being open to God’s call, even when we think we’re due to have some time out. Jesus has been in demand and under pressure, which partly explains why he should choose to travel to somewhere he hopes to remain unrecognised, but his plan fails miserably. He’s far more well known than perhaps even he realises, at this point in his ministry and he can’t go anywhere without word getting out. We might be tempted to think we can keep our heads down and avoid being confronted by the needs of those around us, but God will keep on prompting and pushing us to keep tuned in to what’s going on. This is not a case of ‘There’s no peace for the wicked’, but it is living evidence that when you’ve said ‘yes’ to following Jesus then the expectations of others that you’ll respond to their crises and hopes and fears don’t go away just because you want a break.
Secondly, I think these healing stories show that in the same way that being open to God caused Jesus to grow and expand his sense of God’s priorities, so we will discover more about God’s mission for us when keep ourselves open to new possibilities. We may think we know now what is top of our list for the next 6 months in terms of our life as a church, but God may well have other ideas. If we are prayerful and are listening to God as well as talking to him, then these revised priorities will become clear. Jesus may have begun his ministry by thinking the first call on his time and energy must be the Jewish people. His experience in Tyre shows him a different perspective on what God wants him to do and he responds faithfully.
Thirdly, our world seems to be making a much better job of opening divisions and animosities than holding together relationships and alliances forged out of shared experience. That means we need to be even more willing to step outside of our comfort zone and share God’s good news with those we’ve previously never thought were interested in hearing it. I believe we can and will be surprised by what happens as a result.
Sunday 2nd September 2018
Deuteronomy 4: 1-2, 6-9 and Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15 and 21-23
‘Have you washed your hands?’ It’s one of those questions you keep asking when you’re with small children. The need to make sure they don’t go around with dirty hands and cause infection for themselves and other people is one of those things that needs constant reinforcing at an early age. It goes along with other things like knowing your own name, being able to hang up your coat on the peg and being able to sit still to listen to a story it’s a fundamental part of being socialised – learning how to join a community and be a good member of it. This week, all around the country, four year olds will be starting school and teachers and other school staff will be discovering the ones who need watching and children who already know the basics.
Today’s reading takes us back to our journey through Mark’s gospel, after a summer break with John. The previous chapter in Mark showed Jesus feeding a crowd of five thousand in a remote place around the coast of Galilee from his base in Capernaum, shocking the disciples by walking on the lake beside their boat as the disciples rowed back across the water in the early hours of the following day and then healing people wherever he went around the towns, farms and villages of the area. Now the gospel gets us straight into what sounds like a very strange religious argument between Jesus and a group of Pharisees and scribes. They have made the trip up north from Jerusalem to check out the rabbi from Nazareth, whose words and deeds are getting talked about everywhere. It’s caught their notice that the disciples following Jesus don’t always wash their hands before eating. The gospel writer goes into great detail to explain to us that doing so is expected behaviour not just for Pharisees but Jewish people in general, and that these rules of cleanliness also extend to washing the cups and jugs and bowls you use. There’s several things we can learn from this. One is that the gospel must have been aimed at non-Jews – Gentiles – from the start or the writer wouldn’t have needed to give this cultural explanation. Another is that observing rules was a very important part of being a Pharisee or a scribe in the temple at Jerusalem – and making sure other Jewish people did so too. Not only that if you’re under occupation, as the Jewish people of Palestine during the lifetime of Jesus were, then anything you can do to demonstrate quiet resistance to the troops you’re oppressed by is very important. One way Jewish people were able to thumb their noses at the Romans was by carefully keeping their religious rules like hand washing and making sure they did it very publicly. What Jesus says in reply to the Pharisees is going to be listened to very carefully by anyone in earshot. Theirs is not an innocent inquiry about first century hygiene – it’s part of a very significant exchange about Jewish identity with deep rooted questions about power and who’s in charge of the religious leadership of the nation just under the surface. These temple visitors feel threatened by Jesus – uneasy about who he is and what he’s up to – and all of that lies behind their question.
But Jesus is more than a match for them. He not only realises at once what their game is but he’s equally capable of debating theology with power and politics thinly concealed behind it too. It’s not that Jesus dislikes the Pharisees – nor that they’re the principal villains of the piece in the gospels as we sometimes fall into thinking. Jesus’s problem with them is that in their keenness to live by religious rules, and make sure everyone else does so too, they’ve lost sight of which bits of their code are central to God’s law and which are human additions. Over the centuries, in their desire to find the best way of living in a holy way, they’ve fenced off God’s law with a whole lot of what the gospel writer calls ‘traditional rules’ – extra codes which they say are ways to ensure Jewish people live in a way that reveals the living God to those non Jews who live alongside them. Jesus isn’t bothered that by insisting on hand washing for everyone they’re extending what a priest in the temple is supposed to do to cover everyone. He can live with that. What he can’t accept is that these religious leaders are so good at insisting others behave in a holy way while simultaneously doing things in their personal relationships which he thinks dishonour the Ten Commandments in the most basic respects. Where’s he getting his information on this? It must be because he’s talking to ordinary people all the time, hearing about their griefs and woes, seeing and hearing for himself how the way the Pharisees operate is adding another layer of oppression and misery to the tough lives of ordinary people all around him.
The way this is happening is through religious leaders using the traditional rules around the commandments as a way of wriggling out of their basic obligations towards their nearest and dearest. Rather than taking responsibility for their elderly parents – ‘honour your father and mother’ as the Commandment says – they’re saying ‘everything I have belongs to God’. That then means they give nothing more to support their elderly relatives. Does this sound at all familiar? I can’t help but think of the parallels with contemporary tax dodges, which allow people off the hook of paying their proper contribution towards the cost of providing services for everyone through the taxation system. Some people now avoid accepting any ethical responsibility for the care of their older relatives and find all sorts of ways of justifying that, as some Pharisees did 2000 years ago.
For Jesus, the real point of engaging with him in religious discussion isn’t so much asking ‘Do your disciples wash their hands before eating?’ but ‘How do you honour God here and now?’ He isn’t interested in codes to do with what you take into your body, and how you do it. Those are really about building religious power for the people who enforce them. He wants people to look inside themselves instead and then consider what comes out of them. If you have a pure heart then you’ll do the sort of things he’s modelling for everyone such as feeding others, reaching out to those who’ve got pushed to the end of the line in life’s queue, offering healing and new beginnings to the broken souls who’re floundering in the darkness. ‘Go back and read the prophets,’ Jesus says, ‘and you’ll see that all those years ago Isaiah knew the difference between what people say about God with their lips and what they actually have in their hearts.’ The proof lies in what they do.
What does all of this mean for us? It’s about being willing to ask important questions when people come up to us and start criticising what we’re doing as not being central to our religious life. If they’re full of self importance, and show every sign of being more interested in what goes into someone than what comes out of them, then we’re right to be suspicious. It means being willing to explore how we can purify our hearts, even though we know they’re in constant danger of getting unclean again because of our human frailties, and are always in need of going through a new wash cycle. There’s a Welsh hymn some of you may know, Calon Lân, and these are the words in English. It’s a hymn I love singing. The challenge for us is, as today’s gospel reminds us, having a pure heart and also engaging with the needs of the world. That’s where God’s grace comes in. There’s no point in having a pure heart if I keep it to myself and never risk getting my hands dirty. Only a pure heart which is there for others can help to bring God’s love to life for those in need around me.
I don’t ask for a luxurious life, the world’s gold or its fine pearls,
I ask for a happy heart, an honest heart, a pure heart.
A pure heart full of goodness is fairer than the pretty lily,
None but a pure heart can sing, sing in the day and sing in the night.
If I wished for wordly wealth, it would swiftly go to seed;
The riches of a virtuous heart, a pure heart will bear eternal profit.
Evening and morning, my wish rising to heaven on the wing of song
For God, for the sake of my Saviour, to give me a pure heart.
Sunday 26th August 2018
John 6: 59-69 and Ephesians 6: 10-20
If you want to see the city of Chester through the eyes of a visitor 2000 years ago the best way to do it is to take to the streets. For ninety minutes, you and the family can parade around behind a guide dressed in the uniform of Roman centurion who will introduce to parts of the city you’d never otherwise notice. Chester – or Deva as it was then – was home of the biggest fortress in Roman Britain with the largest amphitheatre too. Your tour guide, playing the part of a Roman soldier, will give you a light-hearted insight into life as it was then. ‘Sinister, dextra’, left – right, you march along the pavements behind your officer as history comes to life. Up to a point, that is. Summer holidays are the ideal time for re-enacting history but the reality behind the version we experience is always going to be different. I don’t suppose that 1st century Roman soldiers – officers or enforced recruits from across the Roman Empire at the time – had lives full of light hearted moments in Deva/Chester. Amy discipline was tough, the Welsh tribes in North Wales and Anglesey took some subduing, and the locals in north and east Cheshire were far from passive but fought back. If there’s one thing to say about Roman army life, whether or not it’s told in a family friendly way, it is that the whole organisation ran on tight rules, good training and that anyone stepping out of line would be brought back fast.
It takes some explaining why the apostle Paul should choose to use the language of armies and armour to encourage new followers of Jesus Christ as he ends his letter to the church at Ephesus. He’s probably writing while under Roman arrest in the fort of Caesarea Maritima, a port on the northern coast of Palestine. Acts chapter 21 tells us how in AD 57 Paul had visited Jerusalem but fell foul of some fellow Jews who wrongly accused him of bringing Gentiles into the Temple, so making it unclean. A riot had broken out and Paul escaped with his life only thanks to the intervention of the Roman guard in Jerusalem, who got him away from the crowd to stop them killing him. The centurion who’d arrested Paul was astonished to find he hadn’t just rescued an infamous Egyptian trouble maker, as he’d first thought, but a Greek speaking Jew from Tarsus who was also a Roman citizen. Paul was then stuck in prison for two years – during which time he may well have written the letters to Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and to Philemon. Two years later a new governor in Jerusalem reopened his case at which point Paul claimed his right as a Roman citizen to be tried in Rome and embarked, under Roman arrest, on his final journey to the capital of the Empire.
Does Paul want the internally divided and wayward congregation at Ephesus to identify themselves as soldiers for Christ because he’s a fan of Roman army discipline, to which he owes his life? It might be easy to think that and parts of the church over the centuries have invested time and energy in promoting Christian faith as warlike and aggressive. My paternal grandfather’s favourite hymn was ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, but he was brought up in Victorian times. I doubt if that hymn is top of many people’s lists now, because the 20th century saw so much death and conflict that we shy strongly away from warlike Christian imagery. So what is Paul promoting to the Jewish/Gentile Christians of Ephesus? One thing to notice is that the armour they’re to put on is mostly defensive, so it’s more about protection from outside forces than about setting out to influence others aggressively. We put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of integrity, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation to help us all stand firm under the attacks we may suffer from outside forces as we try to follow Jesus. If it isn’t true that Jesus is Lord, and the son of God, and saviour of the world then we might as well go home now without bothering to stay on for refreshments. The word which is translated as ‘integrity’ in our version of the Bible could equally be read as ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’. Seeing police officers wearing body armour on active duty is pretty standard practise now, because the risks of public order are so unpredictable. As followers of Jesus, the apostle Paul says, we need to have God’s justice and goodness as our body armour, so we can go into potentially dangerous places with proper protection. On our feet we must wear the shoes of the gospel of peace. These are not tough army boots, designed to help us put the boot in to other people with the way we speak and act. As followers of Jesus we need to have their feet on the ground in a way that constantly reminds us of the need to march in bringing reconciliation, bridge building, dialogue and understanding with us as we arrive. There can be few better training camps for a peace-making mission than holiday time with family or friends. Sharing meals, (when are we hungry and what do we want to eat?), deciding what you’re all going to do today, agreeing when you’ll arrive, which route to take, where to park and when we’re all ready for home take enough skill and love. I haven’t mentioned yet the minefields of getting out of the gift shop and what to wear and who sits where in which car either! We have as our shield in this campaign our faith which we use to protect ourselves from the different arrows we find winging their way towards us each day – arrows of doubt, despair, temptation, difficult circumstances, personal tragedy, or thinking that we are the most important people and forgetting it’s all about God.
Having salvation as our helmet means knowing we belong to Jesus, and that Jesus is helping to protect us in all the dangers and problems we face. Which leaves us with one weapon only in our hand – the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. What does Paul mean by this, bearing in mind that much of what we now mean by the phrase ‘the word of God’ hadn’t yet become part of scripture as Paul was sending this message to the church in Ephesus? Tom Wright says Paul must be thinking of passages from the prophet Isaiah which speak of God’s Messiah, whose words act like a sharp sword, the messenger who comes to a gospel of peace. Isaiah 11. 4-5 ‘with justice he will judge the poor and defend the humble in the land with equity; like a rod his verdict will strike the ruthless and with his word he will slay the wicked.’ Isaiah 52.7 ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the herald, the bringer of good news, announcing the deliverance, proclaiming to Zion, ‘Your God has become king.’
It might be easy after all this imagery of armour to think that signing up to the Christian faith is about becoming a lone warrior, a solo soldier acting on their own, but that’s the exact opposite of what Paul intends. He’s aiming to bring together the disunited and factious church in Ephesus around the gospel of Jesus Christ and they’re called to act as one, not as a group of isolated individuals. It can’t have escaped Paul’s notice – or that of his audience in Ephesus and in other early churches scattered around the Roman Empire – that the Roman army operated with strength because of organisation and discipline. Individuals are part a clear structure. There are legions – armies of 5,500 men – and within them ten cohorts of about 480 men. Nine of the cohorts are subdivided into centuries, with about 80 men in them, each commanded by a centurion. The tenth cohort has the specialist troops – blacksmiths and builders – and is bigger. Everyone knows where they fit in the structure and relies on the skill and support of their closest fellow soldiers to fulfil orders. Our fellowship grows both when we worship together and we clean up the church halls together, when we pray and when we wash the coffee cups, when we discuss difficult issues and when we have fun.
And finally, Paul reminds followers of Jesus that we need to stay alert about the external forces bearing down on us. Being aware of what can go wrong is part of sensible Christian living. Around us in the world we have plenty of evidence that God’s goodness is still fighting it out with the forces of darkness and evil. Our role is to stand firm and support the signs of hope, care for others, self-giving love, truth and justice that we encounter wherever we find them. In doing this we need to strike a balance between the temptation to say that anyone or anything we disagree with is not from God and the need to be aware that bad things can get a hold when we are not prepared to speak out and oppose them from the start. Something that starts off looking relatively harmless or even laughably ridiculous can end up becoming very dangerous. In resisting the forces of evil, side by side, clothed in God’s armour, we can be sure that God is with us. God’s peace will prevail. God’s love sets us free. God’s purposes will ultimately over come all obstacles. There is nothing for us to fear.
Sunday 19th August 2018
John 6: 51-58 and Ephesians 5: 15-20
It’s a good thing not to spend all your time with ‘churchy’ people – something that can happen a lot to ministers, if we’re not careful. We forget that the things we talk and think about make little or no sense to many other people. We lose sight of the fact that having Christian faith in your life is not something many people share or understand and that even if they do we’re not necessarily going to know this just by bumping into them in the shops or at the school gate. Yesterday I was at a barbeque in the sunshine when a friend started talking to me about hymns. He is not someone of faith though he lives by very strong personal values and his wife is a practising Catholic. He’d heard something on the radio about when hymn singing started and was surprised to learn that it hadn’t been widespread across the churches until Victorian times. That – he commented – is why hymn books have so many 19th century hymns in them. I could feel my inner church historian getting restless and wanting to take the conversation far deeper than he’d been bargaining for! I tried not to give him a lecture but I did say that hymn singing was on the rise long before Queen Victoria. I name dropped the two 18th century Free Church hymn writers and pioneers of hymnody in the English language. One, Isaac Watts, was a Congregationalist and the other – John Wesley’s brother Charles – wrote the soundtrack for the Evangelical Revival. It was as a part of that movement that John Wesley’s ideas to reform and revitalise the Church of England eventually resulted in the birth of the Methodist Church.
Today’s reading from the New Testament letter to the church at Ephesus (just inland nowadays from the coast of modern day south west Turkey) refers strongly to church music two thousand years ago, so we know our hymn singing is not some recent fad: ‘speak to one another in psalms, hymns and songs; sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.’ In the first century, at the time when Paul was making his missionary journeys in the decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, Ephesus was a port with a very major role in the Roman Empire. If Jerusalem was the most important place for the Early Church then Ephesus ran it a close second. From Ephesus a successful missionary like Paul could reach out to an enormous hinterland of towns and cities, or board a ship and travel back across the western Mediterranean towards Greece or Rome, stopping off en route at the islands where the gospel was also taking root at the time. One of the key things to understand about Ephesus is that it’s a multicultural city, and one where a number of faiths are present. There’s a resident Jewish diaspora. There’s Romans and Greeks. The great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, with its multiple courtyards and enormous columns, was the focus for a local fertility cult.
Ephesus is a test place for the early Christian Church. If it can put down roots and change people’s lives here then it can make ground anywhere. Whether or not it was Paul himself who wrote the letter – and the jury is still out on that one – it’s clear that the congregation being written to is riven with divisions. Those who come from a Jewish background are not getting along well with the Gentiles they’re worshipping and living alongside. Things are seriously divided. There’s bad behaviour of all sorts and its getting the church a bad name in the community. Instead of being sources of light, some of the Christians of Ephesus are being talked about for all the wrong reasons as thieves, gossips and bad tempered types who are unfaithful in their family relationships, greedy in their business dealings and prone to drink too much. The neighbours are watching – intently – as they always do. Read the earlier parts of chapter 5 and you will get a sense of the telling off the Ephesus congregation has just been put through. But, like any good teacher, the letter writer knows that to finish a message with something that makes people feel belittled is not good, effective pastoral care. They’re just going to sulk and not change their ways. So instead he refocuses them on the positives – the things they can hold in common – the elements of Christian discipleship that can pull them back together instead of pushing them further apart. That way he hopes to rebuild their identity and draw them back to God.
As we all know, one way of building unity and faith can be singing. Those from a Jewish background in Ephesus will already be familiar with the psalms – the hymn book of the Jewish Temple from the Hebrew Scriptures. Tradition has it that King David wrote 73 of the psalms and we encounter him in scripture as a skilled poet and musician. The psalms celebrate the story of the Jewish people’s journey with God over the centuries and give us a full picture both of the glory of God and the frustrations and problems of ordinary human beings when things don’t go our way. They introduce us to the God who is our shepherd and friend, as well as our rock and protector. What better way to establish the link between Jesus the Messiah and Son of God and God the Father, maker of heaven and earth, than singing psalms in Christian worship? We know psalms were used in synagogue worship at this time so it would make sense that when Christian missionaries arrived somewhere new, and established themselves at first in the Jewish worshipping community, they would continue psalm singing at the point when a parting of the ways eventually came and they established separate worship.
But clearly there are hymns around too, already, in this first century church. You can spot hymn passages in the New Testament from the way they sound special, and even in translation there’s a sense of a richer vocabulary at work: ‘He was in the form of God; yet he laid no claim to equality with God, but made himself nothing, assuming the form of a slave. Bearing the human likeness, sharing the human lot, he humbled himself, and was obedient event to the point of death, death on a cross!‘ (Philippians 2. verse 5 on). Or this example: ‘He is the image of the invisible God; his is the primacy over all creation. In him everything in heaven and on earth was created’ (Colossians 1. 15 on). Here two amazing descriptions of who Jesus is, written in poetry so they’re easy to remember and think about, even if you can’t read or don’t have anything about Christian faith to look at anyway on parchment. From the start, it’s clear, the church has sung about its faith and its deepest mysteries. That’s the rich tradition in which we stand now.
What does it do for us, having singing in our lives? Even if you’re not a person of faith the health experts now tell us it is enormously life enhancing to sing – it does your whole body good, let alone what it does for your mind and spirit. The great popularity of choir programmes on tv recently, and the resurgence in local choirs as a way of building community, all speaks about that. But for someone of faith there’s more going on. You may find the words of a hymn popping into your mind at a moment of sadness or joy. I think that’s God’s Holy Spirit talking to us – reverse prayer, if you like. We take comfort and energy from the familiar words and are excited by new tunes and phrases that embed themselves inside us.
And one thing that happens when our spirits are lifted is that we remember to give thanks, rather than dwelling on the things we lack or the needs we have. Our view of the world is expanded, our hearts are opened out and things look better when we sing. The young church at Ephesus had to learn how to build its unity from the inside out in order to grow. What better way to rebuild relationships than to sing psalms and hymns together to God’s praise?
Sunday 5th August 2018
John 6: 24-35 and Ephesians 4: 1-16
Yesterday was a very special day for the 20 or so of us who were able to represent this church at John Grundy’s ordination in St Andrews URC, Brockley, south London. I, for one, wouldn’t have missed it for anything. To say it was a warm occasion is understating things. The welcome was very generous but the heat in the first-floor worship area was like nothing I’ve experienced since visiting Haiti a few years ago. We heard, as you always do on these occasions, from the prospective minister – John in this case – about their call to ministry. It was moving – as you’d expect. I thought of the powerful royal wedding sermon preached a few months ago by Bishop Michael Curry when he said: ‘the power of love is demonstrated by the fact that we’re all here. Two young people fell in love, and we all showed up’. Yesterday we saw the powerful results of John’s love for God, and God’s love for him, which finally resulted in John training to become a minister. We ‘all showed up’ to celebrate that love and recognise the significance of this call on John’s life from now on.
The apostle Paul, writing to the young church at Ephesus, gives us a shock at the start of today’s reading by being very clear that a call to respond to the gospel is something we all share. The word for being called out in the original New Testament Greek has the same roots as the word ‘ekklesia’, from which we get ‘ecclesiastical’. A church is a group of those who’ve been called out by God to work and worship together. As such, Paul says, you have to live according to some standards of behaviour. He knows what church communities can be like when people behave badly and disagree or throw their weight around with each other. You may recognise some of the things Paul writes in this passage from the prayers we use and the words we say when someone becomes a church member. They were reflected too in the promises made yesterday by John, the members of his new congregations and his new colleagues from Southern Synod.
Paul knows better than many of the first generation of church leaders how Christian communities suffer when there is disunity, and how far away this is from what God intends for us. He’s had plenty of experience of how easily things can fall apart when a church splits up into different groups and people disagree about the right way forward. So here he stacks up seven different points of unity for the Ephesian church to dwell on and reclaim, if they’ve lost sight of them. Seven is always an important number – it signifies completion – and he starts with ‘one body’. You can’t have breakaway groups, doing or undoing the business of church meeting, over the coffee cups or in someone’s home without it being dangerous for the unity of the church. There’s ‘one Spirit’. Those of us who were in Brockley yesterday felt the movement of the Holy Spirit, I think, as John was recognisably both the person we know and love, growing before our eyes into the new role to which he’s been called. We share ‘one hope’, Paul writes to the church in Ephesus. That’s a challenge sometimes for a church but, when through our worship and discussion we can discern together the things we all hope for there is nothing more moving or powerful. It’s especially easy to be open to this when a new ordained ministry is starting, as happened yesterday. That sort of occasion helps everyone to say afresh what they hope God can do in and through them, as they put new energy and investment into the future and leave the past behind them, safe in God’s hands. ‘One Lord’ – with a capital ‘L’ – means that Jesus must be at the centre of the church’s life. This is a priority that never changes over the centuries of Christian life. If we can’t agree about that basic point of unity we’re in real trouble. John’s new ministry, as we know from our experience of him, will be about calling people to Jesus not to himself. One faith can be a challenge for us to maintain but we’re not alone in that. The church has always had within it people with a wide variety of views and ideas. Questions and discussions are fine but Paul knows that if people start to undermine and deconstruct the real essentials of the faith then things start to fall apart. Don’t forget, he’s writing very early in the life of the Christian faith, centuries before the major doctrines were agreed and put in place, so his definition of ‘faith’ would focus on belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God and saviour of the world. We’re nearly at the end of the list now and Paul talks about one baptism. I remember when we visited Ephesus a few years ago we visited the site of the Church of Mary, which is very near the archaeological remains of the Greek city Paul would have known. There you find the oldest baptistry in Anatolia and can step down into the space and imagine it in use. One baptism, as Paul knew, was not always straightforward in the early church but if people understand how it brings us together it is one of the strongest unifying signs we have. Now he reaches his final point of unity – the greatest of them all – and reminds the Ephesians that we all share in common ‘One God and Father of us all, who is over all and through all and in all’. It’s not that we’re somehow creating a sense of unity by deciding to follow Jesus, Paul sees. Rather that in making our commitment and answering God’s call we take our place in a far greater structure of things which hold together within the whole of creation. Within that we’ll find a lot of differences and variety – opportunities to love not excuses for a fight.
There’s a prayer we use sometimes, from the Iona community, which says: ‘You made differences part of the picture, the roots, not the rebels, of harmony.’ Every time I use that prayer I want to stop for a few moments to let the message sink in – for me as much as for anyone. How often in any given day do we encounter those who see the world differently from us? I’m not necessarily meaning someone we bump into at the shops or in the traffic queue or on the news either. It can be the person we live with or encounter most closely who sees the world through quite a different set of lenses from those we have in our spectacles. How do we respond? Do we allow ourselves to express frustration and share what we think so they see things correctly – in other words as we do? Should we say nothing and seethe inside because of the injustice of having to stay silent? Do we try to find a way to open up a dialogue so that both of us can grow in understanding and perhaps find a better of seeing things than either of us could arrive at on our own?
Paul was writing before divisions and schisms broke the church into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox almost 1000 years ago. He couldn’t foresee that 500 years later Protestantism would emerge, trying to improve on what Luther and Calvin saw as the faults and failings of Roman Catholicism. He didn’t know that in the 18th century an Evangelical revival would give birth to Methodism or that the 20th century would see a new wave of churches flowing from the Pentecostal revival. Paul couldn’t know that in the late 20th and early 21st century churches and people from Africa and Asia and Latin America would flow into North America and Europe, balancing the earlier way northern hemisphere missionaries had taken the gospel south a century or more before. It’s no surprise very few people can make any sense of the number of churches we now have and what’s different about them all. That whistle stop tour probably lost most of you after the first sentence.
So what hope does Paul hold out for the church in Ephesus and for those he hopes and prays will continue the faith and find new followers of Jesus in the future? He says we have to grow up and stop acting like kids. We have to hold onto the good, sound teaching we’ve had and when things go wrong we have to ‘maintain the truth in a spirit of love’. That means we shouldn’t make aggressive points at one another’s expense but we can and must find ways to build bridges and set up dialogue when things go wrong and differences of opinion threaten to pull us apart. Speaking the truth in love is one of the points of our church identity we reminded ourselves of again yesterday, as we shared in the statement concerning the nature, faith and order of the URC. You know the one – that reading we go through every year when elders are ordained and inducted. I know it takes time but I think it’s important to hear what it says and take the message to heart. It’s in the back of the hymn book at 761. Read it and pray about it if you can.
If unity building were only about us we’d all be in real trouble but the good news it’s about God – about our growing up into Christ, in whom all things in heaven and on earth hold together. And if we haven’t quite got there yet then there’s still this afternoon and tomorrow to get on with trying. Here’s a quote from Martin Luther to end with and give us hope: ‘This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.’
Sunday 29th July 2018
John 6: 1-21 and Ephesians 3: 14-21
One gift of leadership that makes a real difference to people is the ability to make things understandable. If you can find the right words then lots of things that can cause people worry and even alarm can be sorted out to the greater good. Sometimes an explanation isn’t so helpful because we don’t agree about what it means either – ‘Brexit means brexit’ could be seen as a recent example of that – but I’m not going to go out deeper further into those dangerous waters now. Instead I’ll concentrate on the far simpler task of trying to explain what God was up to in sending Jesus, his son, to share our lives in all their beauty and mess, all their joy and suffering. That’s what Paul is trying to make clear in his letter to the young church at Ephesus – a Greek city with a Christian community, sited in south western Turkey and, at the time of Paul a major centre of the Roman empire. You can visit the amazing archaeological remains of Ephesus and it’s a very popular tourist attraction today, not far from modern port of Izmir on the coast. The city was a place of learning, commerce, culture and of worship in the first century, with a great temple to the Greek goddess Artemis. We think the Christian church in Ephesus was established quite early, within about 20 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that the gospel arrived thanks to the apostle Paul who travelled to this part of Asia minor and probably lived in the city for two years from 52 AD. Ephesus is also one of the seven cities with Christian communities addressed in the final book of the bible, Revelation. Paul started there, as he always did on these missionary ventures, by going to worship in the synagogue with the local Jewish community. They would be the people who most easily made sense of his teaching about the one God, creator of heaven and earth, ruler of everything both seen and unseen. Once having talked to them about faith he could start introducing them to the Messiah from Nazareth, Jesus Christ, whom he now knew to be God’s own son and saviour of the world.
That was always where the trouble started. For many Jews this was the point when they parted company with Paul. Former Pharisee he may be but Paul’s ideas on the death and resurrection of this rabbi from Nazareth were a step too far for many Jewish worshippers, wherever he preached the gospel. In Ephesus, as Acts chapter 19 tells us, Paul moved out of the synagogue after three months and set up his own teaching centre in a lecture hall. He also ran up against problems later on during his time in the city because his teaching stirred up opposition from the local tourist trade. Talking about the one God, whose son is Jesus and who is worshipped not through statues and shrines but in spirit, didn’t go down well with those who made a living from selling statues and shrines of the goddess Artemis. As Greek goddess of hunting she was worshipped in Ephesus particularly as a source of fertility and symbol of motherhood. Demetrius, a local silversmith, led the charge against Paul on behalf of the town’s craftsmen. Acts 19 verse 23 onwards gives us a snap shot of the local trades council meeting and the way Demetrius whips up his co-workers against the missionary: ‘As you men know, our prosperity depends on this industry. But this fellow Paul, as you can see and hear for yourselves, has perverted crowds of people with his propaganda, not only at Ephesus but also practically the whole of the province of Asia; he tells them that gods made by human hands are not gods at all.’ Demetrius says it’s not just about their livelihoods – this is also an argument about the primacy of their city. Without worship of Artemis and respect for her power then the goddess will fall from grace – what he doesn’t mention in so many words is his concern that so will Ephesus with its business and tourist trade.
So Paul has been up against it in Ephesus. That’s the background to today’s reading from his letter to the church there, written some time after his stay with them. Up to this point in chapter 3 he’s been reminding the young church as clearly as he can that God in Jesus has come to break down divisions between people and unite them in faith. That means the good news is not just for Jews but for non-Jews, Gentiles, too. It’s heady and confusing stuff for his audience even though they’ve heard him say this in person so many times. No wonder Paul needs to resort to prayerful language to get this message over to them because arguments and intellectual approaches alone don’t cut the mustard. Imagine yourself trying to measure the scale and size of God’s inclusive love. How do you do it? Paul starts by suggesting that in God we all have the same surname (Ephesians 3: 15) ‘I kneel in prayer to the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name’. There’s a radical idea to start with. The notion that all our carefully researched family trees, all the delight we take in separating out the distinct strands of our own heritage and story, are unnecessary distractions and totally irrelevant because through God’s love we all belong to the same family. The word for family used in the Greek – ‘patria’- can be interpreted in various ways. You can read it as meaning ‘name’, or even ‘clan’, or ‘race’ or ‘tribe’ or even ‘nation’. Together God’s people are one and they form a living community of faith which means they are linked as closely as if they were blood relatives. When the church gets even a hint of this teaching right in the way we live together it’s amazingly attractive and always has been.
Next Paul attempts a first century version of ‘Our God is a great big God’. ‘Get out your ruler, switch on your electronic surveying gadget, and try to measure the sheer scale of God’s love’, he says to the young church in Ephesus. Now we’re into a place of imagination and vision – not pure description but a moment when Paul wants our minds to be released from their usual limits and our toes to take off from the force of gravity keeping us on the ground. ‘May you, in company with all God’s people, be strong to grasp what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love’. It takes energy and openness to realise how vast and amazing is God’s love for us and for all his children. You don’t do this if you keep within safe limits and tip toe around the edge of faith. You have to be prepared to let go of reserve and defence mechanisms, as much as you’re aware of them, and let the sheer scale of God overwhelm and uplift you. Paul knows that this is mystical stuff – not something we’re all comfortable with – and that it takes some getting your head around. But, without such an understanding of the limits of what we can know and see and appreciate, we fail to grasp the immensity of what God has and does and will do for us through becoming human in Jesus, scaling down to a size and form we can recognize and know at a personal level.
If we begin to get a hold of this revelation, Paul says, then we’ll come to know the enormous scale of Christ’s love ‘though it is beyond knowledge’. Hang on a minute. Doesn’t he want to have his cake and eat it, here? How you can you both know something and recognize that it’s beyond knowable limits at the same time? No wonder a hymn writer like Charles Wesley says ‘Tis mystery all’. None of this makes any sense if we try to impose normal, logical, earthbound limits on it. Paul ends his prayer for those in the young church at Ephesus with the wish that they may be ‘filled with the very fullness of God’. Little old me, little old you, being full of God. There’s an incredible wish for any day of the week. Can it happen? Paul knows it can and it does when we’re open enough to let God in because he’s experienced it for himself. Before he met Jesus he thought he’d already centred his life on God. After his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus he knew that everything which had led up to that moment had been a hollow sham, an empty routine, a pointless exercise by comparison with the living relationship with a risen saviour he was now discovering.
Is this enough to make all the difference to us? Can we be empty enough of ourselves to allow the fulness of God to get a look in to our hearts and lives and minds and hearts? What transformations can happen in our world if God’s church is full of people who are channels for this sort of inclusive, wall-demolishing love, seeing all other people as members of God’s family too? That’s the vision Paul sees. It remains the challenge and the invitation for us now.
Sunday 8th July 2018
Mark 6: 1-13 and 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10
How do we know the stories in the New Testament are true? The Bible doesn’t have a money back guarantee, after all. This book has no built-in customer feedback message telling us that any problems we have with the product can be handled by a divine customer services team who will be glad to help us. When we read the Old and New Testaments with a critical eye, looking for things that surprise and challenge us, there’s no shortage of evidence that this record of God at work in the world is full of bits that we might well think should have been edited out. It’s not just the gory, shockingly violent, apparently racist, homophobic and incredibly misogynist passages you can find in the Bible – there’s plenty of those we could go into if we wanted, as well as some amazing teaching about peace, unity and sacrificial love – it’s the stories of failure too. You might not expect Christianity to have a saviour, Jesus, whose story includes so much let down and misunderstanding. That’s what we get, partly, from Mark’s gospel today, coupled with a passage from Paul’s writings about facing our personal weaknesses and incorporating those burdens into the way we serve God and so making of them strengths.
The phrase ‘coming home’ has a new ring to it today for those millions of football fans who are following England in the World Cup. I wonder what the disciples made of it when Jesus announced to them, one day in Capernaum, that he intended to ‘go home’ to Nazareth? It isn’t very far. Modern day Nazareth is about 30 miles away from the archaeological remains of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. If you’re walking it as Jesus and his followers did it would take you a few days but it’s not an immense distance like going down to Jerusalem for instance. I wonder if the disciples thought he would be going back to a hero’s welcome. Quite possibly, because the word about what he’d been doing in Capernaum – the healings, the miracles, the amazing stories – were probably spreading far and wide. Mark’s gospel gives us quite a different picture of what happens when he gets there. You might recall how this story is told in Luke. Luke has more detail about what happens when Jesus turns up in the synagogue in Nazareth. How the outcome of his challenging sermon on a text in Isaiah is that Jesus nearly gets pushed off the nearby cliff on the edge of town for his pains but somehow manages to get through the crowd and escape. Mark doesn’t go into any of those details but we are clear Jesus doesn’t have an easy time or pleasant reception in Nazareth. What Mark does tell us, which is echoed in Matthew’s version of the story too, is that Jesus was unable to do much healing in Nazareth because of people’s resistance to him and lack of faith in God. Surely that’s not a message we’d expect to find in the gospels and, for me, that gives it the ring of truth. Why would the gospel writers want to show Jesus failing to make an impact if it were not a true record of events? This passage is also a reminder that Jesus has a wide family and – like anyone from a reasonably small community – he’s known and introduced by his connection with other relatives. We might have expected him to be called ‘Joseph’s son’ rather than ‘the son of Mary’ but maybe that’s an indication his mother has already been widowed. James, his brother, will go on after the death of Jesus to become the founder of the followers of The Way in Jerusalem. The big issue that Jesus confronts in Nazareth is not what they call him but how they respond to God. Their minds are closed off to God’s work in their midst. And the effect, as the gospel writer shows us, is that Jesus can’t get much response in Nazareth. His healing ministry is not effective there as it’s been in other places. I think that has a lesson for us. If we come to God seeking help but saying to ourselves all along: ‘Nothing’s really going to happen though, is it,’ then we are actually presenting an obstacle to the work of the Holy Spirit. We have to be open in order for God to be able to do something with us when we come with our requests.
Now think about the sort of training courses you’ve probably been on at different points in your life where you get mentored to do something. The person in charge shows you the right way to do it and then you go out and copy. Imagine yourself into the sandals of those twelve disciples, those close followers of Jesus. They’ve just been on this great homecoming which has become in some ways a major flop. And now Jesus says ‘I want you to go out in pairs. I’m sending you out into the field for the first time.’ I think those disciples are going to have a fair few questions. They’ve seen Jesus healing elsewhere and it’s been effective. They’ve seen him command the waves of the sea of Galilee into stillness and it’s worked. But he’s failed miserably to transform the lives of most people in the town he came from, Nazareth. And now he wants them to go out the communities of Galilee and spread his ministry of healing. I don’t think they’re necessarily feeling very secure about this. There’s one piece of good news, though – possibly. He’s sending them out in pairs. I wonder how the pairs were chosen. I can’t get out of my imagination the sort of Alan Sugar moment from the ‘The Apprentice’ when he pairs off people. He always seems to perversely make sure the most unlikely characters are forced to work together, mischievously and we, the viewer, think ‘that’s not going to work very well’ and it usually doesn’t.
Jesus does have some things to bear in mind as he pairs up these disciples. They all come from a reasonably small geographical area but that in itself could be a problem. There’s brothers – you don’t want to put them together. There’s Levi – the former tax collector– nobody would want to be paired with him. There’s Simon the Zealot – the freedom fighter. Are people going to want to go out on the road with him? His normal approach is surely aggressive. How is he going to do healing? We don’t know how the pairs were arrived at. Mark makes no mention of that. He also omits something else which is there in Matthew’s version of this. In Matthew’s version of the sending out Jesus tells the disciples not to go to Gentile territory. Don’t risk going beyond the boundaries of safe Jewish communities. In Mark’s version that’s not mentioned. What is mentioned is that you’re not allowed to take much with you. You’ve got to be radically reliant on your hosts. You’ve got to come in as needy visitors, to travel light, to be completely open and dependent on others. If you do it that way you will discover very fast, Jesus knows, whether or not you’re welcome. Is the good news being lapped up? Is it going to take root? Can it grow? There is no better way to discover whether you’re really a valued guest than to bring almost nothing with you but yourself. Jesus knows that and that’s why he imposes this rule on them. In return for that dependency on their hosts they will be bringing with them Jesus’s call to repent – to turn back to God – and the power of God’s Holy Spirit to transform lives. That, Jesus knows, is the ideal way for the gospel to take root and to thrive. It’s a risky strategy but apparently effective.
Now let’s have a look at what Paul is writing about to the church in Corinth, a church with whom he has a difficult and troubled relationship over the years. They exchange several letters and we only have part of the correspondence. This is a very strange passage. There is something of Paul’s mysticism here and a sense of the trouble he has in relating to this church. What does it mean for him to say he’s been taken up into the third heaven? That is Pharisee’s language. That’s going back to his roots in Judaism, the training he had as a teacher of the law, and it’s about a dream or vision of closeness to God. Having told them a little bit about it he says he can’t tell them any more because words don’t work here. That’s mystifying in itself. Maybe he’s showing them that as a way of helping them to see he does feel God’s call on his life. Then he goes on to tell them about what he calls the ‘thorn in my flesh’. The commentators have had a field day on this one. There is a whole range of different suggestions as to what it could stand for – everything from epilepsy, or malaria to possibly marital difficulties or psychological problems. We don’t know. We do know Paul says that mysteriously by God’s grace he’s able to use this great weakness of his as an aid in his discipleship. He is able to understand that God can work through his deepest failures. I wonder if any of us have ever reflected on our deepest weakness, been able to offer it to God and say: ‘Please use this as you can and will, God’. I wonder how much time most of us have spent thinking about Good Friday – thinking about what it means to believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Most of the time I suspect we do a pretty good job of using our energies to avoid thinking about struggle, to avoid confronting our own weaknesses and trying to bolster our faith with what we think of as our strengths.
What does all of this mean for us as a church and for the life of the churches in our culture today? With all the other things that are happening on the world stage we have a visit from President Trump as well coming up in the next few days. Would he be preaching a sermon along the lines of make the Church great again?! If so, what would that mean? How would we make the Church great again? More importantly how would Jesus make the Church great again? Judging by these readings today I suspect Jesus’ way of making the church great again would be to help us to confront our weakness, to face the places where we don’t get listened to, to acknowledge that we are searching for people with any faith at all to begin to relate to, and to take risks even though that scares us more than anything else, possibly. And if that means that it feels uncomfortable, and If it means that we want to pray and if it means that we are open to the Holy Spirit doing something new and different in and through us then maybe in a way we don’t expect the Church can be great again as God sees it. It will not be the way the world expects, or the way we expect it’s going to go but the Holy Spirit will have room to move in and through us.
Sunday 1st July 2018
Mark 5: 21-43 and 2 Corinthians 8: 7-15
It’s strange to me how much we in the Church have domesticated the Bible in an unhelpful way by reading it and talking about it’s message indoors over the centuries. If you think about it, much of what happens in this vast library of poetry, history, powerful fables, life stories, codes of conduct for living well, teaching and preaching actually happens outdoors. But we read the Bible sitting on seats, away from the wind or the sunshine, shut away from the sight and sound of whatever’s going on in the communities around us and – as we’re now realizing almost too late – quite often invisible to those we live alongside who don’t choose to come to worship. So here’s a simple question. What happens when you take the Bible outside the front door?
For one thing, you can experience it’s power on the streets where you live, and can try imagining what it would be like to have Jesus around with us all the time now. You can read the stories in places that have a few things in common with the places they were written about – two thousand years ago in the case of most of the New Testament and as much as a thousand years earlier than that in the case of some of the Old Testament. A few years ago the ministers of North Western synod took the Bible outdoors when we read Mark’s gospel around the Lake District. That summer school memory comes back to me when I read Mark’s story of Jesus in Capernaum healing a woman suffering from persistent bleeding and bringing back to life the daughter of Jairus. Several of us were sitting by the lake in Windermere, watching the waves lapping gently on the shore, as we thought ourselves back onto the streets of another lakeside town, Capernaum on the sea of Galilee. By chapter 5 of Mark’s gospel we’re coming to see Capernaum as somewhere Jesus is instantly recognized on the street – he can’t set foot outside without someone asking him for help. On this day he’s just back from a trip to the other side of the lake and there’s plenty of problems waiting for him. The gospel writer builds the tension in this double layered story as Jesus steps off the boat into a crowd of waiting people. He’s hardly had a moment to greet anyone before Jairus – one of the synagogue officials – arrives with an urgent request that Jesus should come to the bedside of his sick daughter. There’s the first shock – a first century Jewish father who cares about his daughter. Now, if it were a son the crowd of onlookers could understand his anxiety, but a girl doesn’t count in the same way. Fancy a father making a scene like this for his sick daughter!
So Jesus sets off with Jairus – a significant local figure who’s recognized on the streets and treated with respect – a father who’s in a state of high agitation that everyone can see. Jairus needs Jesus to move fast and waste no time on the short walk to his house. Seconds count. Let’s hope nobody comes up to the rabbi with some request now because Capernaum is full of people who could slow Jesus down. Then the worst happens. Jesus stops in his tracks and nobody knows why. Fancy asking who touched him! Anyone could have touched him in a crowd like that. Notice the things these two healings have in common and the things that make them different from each other. Jesus has agreed publicly to help one person but now he’s been touched by another who hasn’t publicly asked for his help. He’s on his way to a house where he may well find a dead body – something unclean in Jewish law – but the crowd now discover he’s been touched by a woman suffering persistent bleeding – another form of uncleanness. He’s already on the way to help a less significant member of the community as people see it – a young girl – and now he’s found himself helping an invisible outcast. A woman with this sort of medical condition could have lost contact with her family and friends for the entire 12 years her bleeding has continued. The gospel writer expects us to be shocked and impressed that Jesus should choose to bother with an older woman and a young girl who’d be on the cusp of adulthood in that culture.
And Mark has several more moments to stop us in our tracks, just as Jesus has been stopped in his by realizing someone has been healed without him first having made eye contact with them and spoken to them. We’re taken straight from the woman’s fear and embarrassment out in the sunshine, as she publicly confesses she’s the one who’s touched Jesus and why, to the inside of a house where a child has just died. The mourners have already begun their role of leading the outpouring of grief. Everyone, hearing that sound, knows that death has come to Jairus’s household even before they get to the front door. This is one of those gospel stories that Mark tells with particular vividness. Jesus has walked on with Jairus and three close companions only. Perhaps the other disciples have been left behind to hold back the crowd and persuade them to give the family some privacy. Jesus is certainly in complete command of the situation, and everybody does as he tells them. In the previous chapter of Mark we’ve seen Jesus calming the Sea of Galilee in a life-threatening storm – here is another example of his God-given authority, even in the face of outright laughter and disbelief when he arrives and says: ‘The child is not dead: she is asleep’. The gospel tells us what Jesus says to her in the original Aramaic – ‘Talitha cum’ – ‘Time to get up, little girl’ is the way Tom Wright the contemporary bible scholar puts it. It’s what you say in the family at the start of the day – ordinary speech – evidence of God at work now.
That was then, but what about now? Who needs the followers of Jesus to offer healing nowadays? We’ve got the NHS, or our private medical insurance, and we know far more about how to heal bodies and minds than a first century Palestinian culture could ever have dreamed of. This church is very near to the two biggest medical practices in Wilmslow but what on earth might they possibly need from us, their Christian neighbours? In the 70th anniversary media coverage of the NHS I’ve caught recently I’ve been struck by the humanity and merciful kindness of so many of the hospital staff seen on screen. I think of the large London hospital where, during the sub zero nighttime temperatures earlier this year, homeless people were allowed into A and E for shelter rather than treatment. The security guard patrolling at 5.30am gently wakened each one and asked politely ‘Are you waiting to see a doctor?’, knowing full well the answer was ‘no’. The nurse in charge explained he couldn’t turn fellow human beings out onto the streets to freeze so he’d let them in to sleep on the chairs. I think of the many people around us here who are lacking basics for human living not so much in terms of food or warmth or shelter but because they’re lonely and lost. There’s a line in a hymn which speaks of the ‘refugees of emptiness’. That’s the refugee crisis around us here – a crisis resulting from the amount of movement, dislocation and stress within society – which results in a people searching in the wrong places for something to dull their pain or withdrawing totally into their own private darkness.
Can anything as simple as the Undercroft space beneath us here be enough to change that? Two sessions of community café on Monday and Wednesday mornings are starting to make a difference for those who’ve discovered it already and are telling their friends. It’s somewhere warm and welcoming to come and meet other people, rather than sitting at home alone. There are postcards about the café to take away and share now. We’re letting the local GPs know about the cafe because they tell us so many people who cross their thresholds speak of loneliness when they come to see the doctor. Wednesday Luncheon Club is another place where God’s love is shown in very practical ways, and the midweek reflections that happen before it once a month too. Thursday Tots and Messy Church build networks of relationship, as do Monday Fellowship and Modern Believers and anything else we do that opens hearts and minds to God’s love with us here and now. And if you haven’t been around the buildings on Wednesdays and Fridays when the Wilmslow Youth ROC cafes are happening you’re yet to experience the place buzzing with young life in all its energy. That will grow, come September, with Thursday sessions when youth counsellors are there too.
We need to keep our eyes and ears, our doors and our hearts open, and to live our faith out on the streets as much as we can. Then God in Jesus can and will bring more and more people over our threshold in search of friendship and community. The rest is up to God the Holy Spirit so we just pray and sit back to let God get to work.