We are the Resurrection

ImageActs 2:42-47
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

 

1 Peter 1:3-9
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

 

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I was looking for a story to launch this sermon, and I came across this, from an American Conservative Christian website:

One lady wrote in to a question and answer forum. “Dear Sirs, Our preacher said on Easter, that Jesus just swooned on the cross and that the disciples nursed Him back to health. What do you think? Sincerely, Bewildered.”

“Dear Bewildered, Beat your preacher with a cat-of-nine-tails with 39 heavy strokes, nail him to a cross; hang him in the sun for 6 hours; run a spear thru his side…put him in an airless tomb for 36 hours and see what happens. Sincerely, Charles.”

I am not so confident in a literal Jesus-gets-up-after-three-days-of-being-dead type of resurrection.  But I hope none of you will want to crucify me in response to my theology…

The resurrection is the one Biblical miracle that I am tempted to take literally – I’m tempted, but I’m not quite there.

Whatever happened to the defeated, disillusioned, disciples of an executed leader must have been truly extraordinary.  To go from hiding from the authorities to shouting about Jesus in the market square is remarkable.  To go from betrayal before the cock crows to being prepared to die for their faith in the risen Christ is truly miraculous.

There are only two things I can say with absolute certainty: firstly, you do not have to believe in a literal, physical resurrection to be a good Christian; second, you do not have to disbelieve in the resurrection to be intellectually and theologically sound.  There is certainly room for both perspectives.

It’s almost easier to believe in a literal, physical resurrection than it is to imagine what else could cause this turn around…
The sightings of Jesus after the resurrection are strange and dream-like:

  • He appears in locked rooms…
  • He shows his wounds…
  • He eats fish…
  • He mysteriously vanishes…
  • He is mistaken for the gardener…
  • He walks with some of his disciples for a day before they realise it is him…

It is clear there is some note of uncertainty in how Jesus appears:  Thomas doesn’t believe it, and we know that Thomas wasn’t alone – in Matthew 28 we read that:  “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

If Jesus rose from the dead in a straightforward, literal way, surely no one would doubt him?   A physical resurrection would be a certain, utterly convincing end to the argument.

The resurrection seems to have split Jesus’ followers, some didn’t accept it; but others, including the original disciples, we so passionate about continuing to preach the message of Christ that they were prepared to give their lives for it.

The resurrection, whatever it was, was not a trick or a lie.  People who built their lives around a message of love and truth would not die for a lie.  It was a profound reality that changed lives and continues to change lives today.

In our reading from Acts we hear what kind of new community was created in memory of Jesus:  “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
But it was not just about practicalities – they were awe-struck:  “Awe came upon everyone… …they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts”

This new life led to a community where everyone shared their possessions: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

Christ lived on because the Church became the body of Christ.

Perhaps Mary discovered a love a presence in the sympathy of a gardener by the graves in Jerusalem and realised that the Spirit of Jesus was not constrained by the single person of Christ.

Perhaps the disciples on the Emmaus Road realised that there was still wisdom in the world even after their dead teacher was buried – that the wisdom of Jesus lived on, no longer confined by the single person of Christ.

If the resurrection is the traditional view of a physical body reanimated after death – that is amazing and gives us hope that God can fix the world’s ills because sometimes God steps in to sort things out.

However, if the resurrection is about finding the presence of Christ in the disciples – that is a challenge.  We have to find Christ’s presence in usWe have to be the resurrection in the world today.

The resurrection is not some two thousand year old magic trick – the resurrection is something that we are called to make real in the world.

We are the resurrection.  We are the Body of Christ.  Without us there is no resurrection hope, without us there is no Easter.

The great prayer of Teresa of Avila expresses this profound truth:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Jesus’ message of radical, inclusive love was too strong to be contained by the grave.  He calls us to be his resurrection in the world today.  To prove that love and hope are stronger hate and fear.  We are the resurrection, and we can resurrect Christ today.  I close with the even older words of the Song of Songs, which we have been reading this week at Morning Prayer:

Put me like a seal over your heart, Like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, passion is as fierce as the Grave; It’s flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD.  Many waters cannot quench love, Nor will rivers overflow it; If a man were to give all the riches of his house for love, It would be utterly despised.

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Resurrection Now!

ImageHappy Easter!

What does it mean to wish each other a ‘Happy Easter?’ 

“I hope you enjoy that glass of wine you’ve denied yourself throughout Lent?”

“I hope you have lots of chocolate eggs (though not so many that you are sick?)”

What is Easter all about?

I think liberal Christians can find it easier to believe in Good Friday than Easter.  It takes no leap of the imagination to imagine a good man crucified by an unjust occupying force.  “Nice guys finish last” is a twenty first century cliche.  It’s what we expect.  

But we struggle to believe in Easter Day – if we believe it at all.  New life, new hope, the thought that things can get better – that is a struggle.

But if we don’t believe in resurrection we are cheating ourselves and missing out on the joy that faith offers, and we are missing out on a fundamental truth of human existence.  

I must clarify that I don’t mean the physical coming-back-to-life-from-the-dead – that’s a trick that happens several times in Scripture and is a bit strange and bit mysterious and is a story from the ancient world that is a bit hard to get our modern heads around.

But I mean the historical fact that the disciples who fled Christ at his arrest become the missionaries who turn the world upside down with Christ’s teaching of love and forgiveness.

In our world resurrection is not an incident in history or an abstract theological idea, it is a present reality.

 

“We’re all going to hell in a handcart” – is the subtext (if not the text) of most stories in the Daily Mail.  But they are totally wrong.  The world is getting better.  Fact.

Two thousand years ago the most advanced, civilised nation in the world carried out the death penalty on an industrial scale.  It’s true that the death penalty still exists in many countries worldwide including the United States of America (but in America constrained by a phrase in their constitution that forbids ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ and so no nailing people to planks of wood).  No nation, not even the worst civil rights offenders, practices public crucifixions today.

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

Torture still happens, but it is no longer morally acceptable.

We no longer allow slavery.  It still happens, but its not considered a crime.

I hear some of you protest at my glib optimism!  “How can you say the world is getting better – world wars and genocides have occurred in the last 100 years!”

There have been genocides and attempted genocides in the last fifty years, but these are now the exceptions in how we deal with conflicts between people’s – a thousand years ago these were common practice.

Our technological advancement has been faster than our moral advancement – so there are very real dangers.  But we don’t live in the shadow of immanent global destruction in the same way we did a few short decades ago.  We still have the weapons, and they are still a danger, but we are no longer pointing them at each other with the same insane enthusiasm.

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

Our technology is threatening the future of the planet.  Pollution and global warming are perhaps he greatest threats that the human race has ever faced.  But we have never been better technologically or morally equipped to meet these challenges.

If the ancient world or the medieval world were suddenly transported through time to take over we all be dead in a generation.

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

But we don’t always feel that.

As we get older we lose the innocence we enjoyed in our youth (if we were fortunate enough to have a peaceful and safe youth).  In our life we go from a sate of fluffy childhood loveliness to having to encounter the difficult realities of life, and the older we get the more unpleasant stories we read in newspapers and it seems easy to believe things are getting worse.  It’s seductive to look back with rose coloured spectacles, and look ahead with fear for more disillusionment to come.

But we should look back with honesty and ahead with hope.

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

One symbol of the resurrection is how society has changed – is the place of women.  In the ancient world women were property, passed from their father to their husband… When no longer property they had to promise to “obey” their husbands in the marriage service until recently.

It wasn’t until 1918 women over 30 were able to vote in Britain and women were not allowed to be lawyers or accountants until 1920.  It was not until 1828 – just 86 years ago, that women were given the equal right to vote with men.  The first female minister of state was not until 1965 (when Barbara Castle was appointed Minister of Transport).  Equal pay didn’t come until 1970 Equal Pay Act – and that was a very imperfect piece of legislation that has needed several revisions.

Only last year were women given theoretical equal hereditary rights for the British monarchy.

Today women still do not have full equality – but it is prejudice and inertia, not the rules that cause inequality, the rules largely push towards equality now…

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

But they get better by struggle, by a recurring process of work and campaigning and protests and sliding back before pushing forward.

It’s not that we are drifting into a better world, it’s that campaigners and organisations and individuals are working hard and standing up to injustice and making sacrifices and being crucified over and over and over yet daring to believe that there is a resurrection to come

Things are getting better.  Easter is a constant reality in our world.

Watch and old television show from the 1960s or 70s and you will be shocked by the casual sexism, and racism, and homophobia.  Even in the last 40 years attitudes have changed for the better.

Another symbol of the change is our attitude to sexuality.  In much less than a generation we have gone from homosexuality being illegal to gay marriage.

Here is a perfect symbol of the resurrection.  The resurrection does not end the story – it begins it.

The resurrection is a message of hope and new life that has to grow and spread.

The celebrations of the first same-sex marriages were exciting, and for many a symbol of resurrection after long years of prejudice, bulling, violence and state-sanctioned persecution.

There will be a song on this subject to come later in the service, but for now I close with one of my favourite poems, Sometimes by Sheenagh Pugh.  I’ve used it before, but it bears repeating:

 

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

 

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.

Maundy Thursday – a Dramatic Eucharist (or ‘all the Church is a Stage…’)

ImageA Sermon for Maundy Thursday

There is a saying that all clergy are, at their heart, failed actors.  I would like to poo poo this as terrible stereotyping (the clergy version of the famous insult to teachers: “those who can – do; those who can’t – teach (and those who can’t teach – teach P.E.)”

But the truth is that my childhood ambition was to be an actor (strictly speaking I wanted to be Doctor Who, but when I discovered that Doctor Who wasn’t real I decided to settle for being the actor that played him!)

There is a close link between religious practice and drama – I’m not just thinking of medieval Passion Plays or Hollywood Biblical blockbusters like Noah with Russell Crow…  The Eucharist, every Eucharist, is, at its heart a drama – a reenactment of the both the Last Supper and, symbolically, the crucifixion.  On Maundy Thursday, especially with the Seder meal, the nature of the reenactment is writ large, but the drama is in the heart of every Eucharist.

The congregation take on the role of the disciples, the priests stands in the role of Jesus, teaching the disciples and sharing the food.  (Although in a deeper sense the role of Jesus is performed in a much more profound sense by a scrap of bread and sip of wine.  If I get too carried away with the playing the role of Jesus I have to remember than inanimate objects are doing the job in a more meaningful way that I ever could!)

In a sense we are all disciples and we are all the Body of Christ, but for the moment of the drama, around the table we are in role…

But we come to the Eucharist to act out a role – and the stories of the disciples help to locate ourselves in the story:

  • are we like impetuous Peter, rushing forward to volunteer and tripping over ourselves and causing chaos?
  • are we like dour Thomas, glum and wracked with doubts? 
  • are we like James and John, jostling for the best seats?
  • are we like Judas, fed up with the whole thing and ready to betray Jesus?

Seeing the drama in the Eucharist can help make our Communion more profound.

We take the role of disciples because we are disciples.  ‘Disciple’ simply means ‘learner’ or ‘student’ – if we want to learn from Jesus, if we want to follow Jesus’ teaching then we are not simply playing the role of disciples, we are disciples.

The drama has been played out over centuries in countless different situations.  In our ‘Ordinary Time’ Eucharist service books there is a lengthy quotation from Dom Gregory Dix about how the drama of the Eucharist has spoken to people across the world and through history:

Jesus told his friends to do this, and they have done it always since.  Was ever another command so obeyed?  For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthy greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth.  Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the wisdom of a Parliament or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren women; for captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war; while lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on a beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the Church, tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of St Joan of Arc – one could fill many pages with the reasons why [we] have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them.  And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the ‘plebs sancta dei’ – the holy common people of God.

 

But there are strange things about the Last Supper.  Every time it is described in the Bible it is prefaced with the words “on the night he was betrayed” – not “when all his disciples were gathered together” or “on the night of the Passover” or “on the day before he died.”  Always it was “on the night he was betrayed” – words that echo through scripture and down the centuries

As a good liberal Church we don’t like to focus on sin, we prefer to focus on God’s love for us, and God’s calling that we should love others.

But tonight we are reminded of our capacity to betray the Lord; the gift of Jesus to us (in bread and wine) is given in the context of a betrayal.  I don’t think we are reminded of the betrayal to keep us imprisoned in guilt, but we do have to acknowledge our brokenness and the brokenness of our society and our world to allow forgiveness and healing to take place.  We are reminded of the betrayal so that trust can be be restored.

Only Christians, only a church, which knows and owns its own capacity to collude, to oppress,  to betray, like those first friends of Jesus, can be a church that can proclaim the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead.  We have to be aware of how the Church still betrays Jesus, in our prolonged failure to appoint women bishops, in our inability to see all Christians regardless of gender, social class and sexuality as equal before God, in our obsessions with power and authority the Church still betrays Christ.  And in our own lives with our obsessions with the insignificant, our inability to love and whatever else in our lives that falls short of God’s calling.

The liturgy tonight takes us through the last supper with its strange and moving teaching and sharing of bread and wine, through the symbolic washing of feet, to Jesus’ betrayal and arrest and the disciples fleeing in disarray.

Tonight we leave in silence – and it feels awkward and ‘wrong’ – we should end our worship with a cup of tea and a chat.  Our friendships formed over cuppa and Rich Tea Biscuit are an important expression of our faith and being the Church.

But tonight we take time out from the joy and inspiration that hopefully characterises our faith most of the time to reflect on our brokenness and offer that to God.

And the Church will be open for silent prayer once the formal part of the service has ended…

Now I close with the words of St. Paul:

“…I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’”

Poetry for Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday in Poetry

ImageMatthew 21.1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”
The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

 

Lent is drawing to a close, the story of the Life of Christ which we act out as we walk the Church’s year, is reaching its climax.  Jesus preaching has upset too many people, his opponents are up in arms.  It is the religious leaders who are thirsting for Jesus blood, Jerusalem is the seat of their authority.  And on Palm Sunday Jesus enters their domain.

Jesus does not creep into Jerusalem, he parades in…  Palm Sunday is a day of triumph – Jesus rides into Jerusalem and is acclaimed by the crowd.

For the last few Palm Sundays I have read a poem by GK Chesterton, because it makes me smile & it makes me think.

So this year I went looking for an alternative poem, and found so many that today’s sermon may end up resembling an episode of Radio 4’s Poetry Please:

I want to begin with a short poem entitled ‘Palm Sunday’ by Henry Vaughan, the Welsh metaphysical poet.  He gives the crowds of Palm Sunday a heavenly significance:

Hark! how the children shrill and high
Hosanna cry,
Their joys provoke the distant sky,
Where thrones and seraphims reply,
And their own angels shine and sing
In a bright ring:
Such young, sweet mirth
Makes heaven and earth
Join in a joyful symphony.

Vaughan’s poem is beautiful, and the image of earth and heaven in unison is touching, but I think the power of Palm Sunday is much more earthy and earthly than that.  Jesus rides in on a donkey.  I’m sorry I cannot help myself returning to G.K. Chesterton and his poem, simply called ‘The Donkey:’

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools!  For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

Chesterton sees the humble and the despised lifted up to divine use.  And certainly this is the very core of the gospel, that the uglyness and messiness of our lives can be redeemed by God’s love.  However, we would be mistaken if we saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as a symbol of Jesus humility.  Riding into a city on a donkey was not a sign of humility, but a sign of Kingship.  A King at war would ride into a city on a horse, but a King coming in peace would ride a donkey.  The crowd certainly understood the symbolism, and hailed Jesus as ‘the Son of David’.

Jesus is defiant as he walks toward his fate.  The crowd, along with the disciples are delirious.  The disciples were euphoric – they thought this was their time of triumph was at hand…  They were marching with confidence into the stronghold of their enemies.  Surly they came to pull down the authorities that condemned them and their leader.  Surely their Messiah would oust the Romans.  Surely the Kingdom of God was at hand, and this was the pivotal moment.

The Kingdom of God was at hand.  This was the moment that Jesus ministry had been building up to, but it was not how the disciples imagined as they cried ‘Hosanna’ on the first Palm Sunday.  If they really knew what it was all about they would not desert Jesus on Good Friday, leaving the women followers to quietly keep the faith.

They came to Jesus for many reasons.  A famous person, doing something unusual in public always gathers a crowd, and Jesus was famous.  He was famous because of the healings that had been reported, and many people would have gathered to see a miracle – to see some magic worked.  Others heard of his criticisms for the religious authorities, and many would have liked that, and come to see the pompous be deflated by this bolshey satirist, whose jibes about logs in eyes of the authorities, and ‘whitewashed tombs’ were the toast of every disreputable inn in Palestine.  Others would have heard the rumours that Jesus was the Messiah, and gathered to see if he really could do away with the Romans.  Perhaps I’m biased, having been brought up in Northern Ireland, but I imagine that it was those desiring political independence, who wanted the Romans to go home, that made up the bulk of the crowd.

Yet in Palm Sunday are traces of Good Friday.  Jesus’ defiance would make him powerful enemies, and the crowds that chant “Hosanna” are soon chanting “crucify him.”

My next poem is  by Marie J. Post, a 20th Century poet and hymn writer who suggest parallels between Palm Sunday and Good Friday in her poem, entitled simply “Palm Sunday:”

Astride the colt and claimed as King
that Sunday morning in the spring,
he passed a thornbush flowering red
that one would plait to crown his head.

He passed a vineyard where the wine
was grown for men of royal line
and where the dregs were also brewed
into a gall for Calvary’s rood.

A purple robe was cast his way,
then caught and kept until that day
when, with its use, a trial would be
profaned into a mockery.

His entourage was forced to wait
to let a timber through the gate,
a shaft that all there might have known
would be an altar and a throne.

The joyful hosannas of today will soon be drowned out by the crowd baying ‘crucify him!”  We can only really understand Palm Sunday in the context of the week that follows.

It is Jesus’ courage here, and in the turning over of the money changers tables in the Temple that make his opponents take action, but it it in his courage that we see meaning of Jesus’ ministry writ-large.  His opposition to the misuse of power and his insistence that God’s love is for everybody, not just the social or religious elite.

By coincidence the poems I have chosen are in chronological order of being written, so finally contemporary Canadian poet Carol Penner reflects in her poem “Coming to the City Nearest You” that the events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week are not simply historical events; they are present realities.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the city nearest you.
Jesus comes to the gate, to the synagogue,
to houses prepared for wedding parties,
to the pools where people wait to be healed,
to the temple where lambs are sold,
to gardens, beautiful in the moonlight.
He comes to the governor’s palace.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the city nearest you,
to new subdivisions and trailer parks,
to penthouses and basement apartments,
to the factory, the hospital and the Cineplex,
to the big box outlet centre and to churches,
with the same old same old message,
unchanged from the beginning of time.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the city nearest you
with his Good News and…
Hope erupts! Joy springs forth!
The very stones cry out,
“Hosanna in the highest,
blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The crowds jostle and push,
they can’t get close enough!
People running alongside flinging down their coats before him!
Jesus, the parade marshal, waving, smiling.
The paparazzi elbow for room,
looking for that perfect picture for the headline,
“The Man Who Would Be King”.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the city nearest you
and gets the red carpet treatment.
Children waving real palm branches from the florist,
silk palm branches from Wal-mart,
palms made from green construction paper.
Hosannas ringing in churches, chapels, cathedrals,
in monasteries, basilicas and tent-meetings.
King Jesus, honoured in a thousand hymns
in Canada, Cameroon, Calcutta and Canberra.
We LOVE this great big powerful capital K King Jesus
coming in glory and splendour and majesty
and awe and power and might.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the city nearest you.
Kingly, he takes a towel and washes feet.
With majesty, he serves bread and wine.
With honour, he prays all night.
With power, he puts on chains.
Jesus, King of all creation, appears in state
in the eyes of the prisoner, the AIDS orphan, the crack addict,
asking for one cup of cold water,
one coat shared with someone who has none,
one heart, yours,
and a second mile.
Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the city nearest you.
Can you see him?

Can these bones live? a sermon by Margaret Offerman

ImageCan these bones live?  asked Ezekiel

Yes they can, said Jesus.

The fourth gospel is the most carefully crafted and most literary of all the gospels.  The narrative is quite different from the other three.  The nativity story for example, lacks reference to a manger or shepherds or Mary and Joseph.  Instead the birth of Jesus is set in a cosmic context.  Taking his cue from the writings of Plato, the fourth gospel writer presents Jesus as a pre-existent unity with God who becomes incarnate at a particular moment in human time and shows the world the glory of God in human form.  God the risk-taker.

John’s gospel is stylish.  It’s full of symbolism.  A vast crowd is filled with real bread and later in a long digression from the  narrative, Jesus explains his role as the bread of life.  And at the end he identifies his betrayer by giving him a piece of bread, a sign that he is putting his life into Judas’s hand.  At the beginning of his ministry he performs a miracle with water;  then at Jacob’s well he asks a Samaritan woman for a drink of water and presents himself as living water: whoever drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again.  Whereas the other three gospels, though they’re certainly not biographies of Jesus, are close to the style of  traditional narrative,    John’s gospel is elliptical and full of abstractions and revealed meanings.

The long story of the resurrection of Lazarus which we’ve just heard is one of the most detailed and complex episodes in any of the gospels.  There are several resurrection stories in the NT,  like the raising of Jairus’s daughter  and the widow’s son at Nairn.  We have to ask ourselves what they mean.

There’s another Lazarus story in the NT, in Luke chapter 16.  It’s  the parable of the rich man, Dives,  and Lazarus,  the  leper.  In it, the rich man ignores the plight of the leprous beggar who sits at his gate hoping to be given scraps which fall from the rich man’s table.   But when they both die and Lazarus is carried off to heaven, the rich man, in the torment of hell asks that Lazarus can be sent to him with water to slake his thirst.  He’s told that this is impossible.  Just as there had been in life, so in death between him and Lazarus there’s a great gulf fixed;  there had been a gulf of the inequality of their status, income, lifestyle.  Now there’s a gulf in the treatment they’re experiencing after death.  The rich man begs that at least Lazarus could be resurrected so that he could return to earth and warn the rich man’s brothers of the fate that awaits them if they continue to ignore the poor who sit at their gates.  But Abraham, the mouth piece of God,  tells them sternly that they have all ignored the words of the prophets and will not be convinced, even if someone should return from the dead.  There can be no resurrection for the hard-hearted.

This parable must have been part of the oral tradition which Luke drew on when he was writing his gospel and which John would have known.  It’s surely no coincidence that John uses the same name for the character in his resurrection story.  Both Lazaruses experience a new life, free from the constraints of their former lives; now they are living a life in God.

The resurrection  of Lazarus in John’s gospel in  many ways is a pre-echo of the story of Easter morning.   The parallels are there: Lazarus was buried in a tomb;  the tomb was sealed with a stone;  a woman called Mary stood outside the tomb weeping;  the body was bound with strips of cloth with a separate cloth wrapped round the head.  

What’s the significance of this story?  

The writer is clear.  The point of this story is to show the hand of God working miracles through Jesus even when the situation seemed totally hopeless. 

There are still many people in the church and outside it who seek in God the kind of supernatural power that will break into natural law and overturn it.  

I’m not one of those people.  But I’m deeply moved by this story, the story of desolation being overcome.  

The story contains elemental aspects of the grieving process.  There’s an intense sense of loss, masked to a certain extent by ritual – the preparation of the body, the ceremonies of burial.  There’s anger –  Martha confronts Jesus.  If you had been here my brother would not have died.  The crowd of friends and family say, He opened the eyes of a blind man; surely he could have prevented this man’s death.   There’s a feeling of impotence – Jesus wept.  His first reaction is profound sorrow so that the onlookers cease to think of Lazarus in their amazement at the depth of Jesus’s love for him.  There’s a need for people to come together and support each other in their mourning.  The story conforms to our experience of bereavement, of abandonment.  

When Jesus called  Lazarus from the tomb, he ordered  the onlookers, Unbind him.  Let him go free.  At Bethany, Lazarus was raised to new life and became part of the Passover celebration which began with the anointing of Jesus in Lazarus’s house, followed by the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the washing of the disciples’ feet and the last supper .  

I see the story as an extended  metaphor,  like the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones.  The monumental piles of bones which represented the history of the house of Israel were enfleshed by the hand of God and brought back to life.  God said: I will put my spirit within you and you will live.  Even the Israelites in despair, in exile, with no apparent possibility of returning to freedom in their own homeland can be offered the promise of new life and hope.  

I hesitate to tempt Providence but I feel that in the C/E we might be tottering slowly to the threshold of a resurrection.  It’s just possible that this year, the long march to the consecration of a woman bishop might be coming to an end.  And last week the law allowing same sex couples to marry came into effect and the media were full of scenes of great rejoicing as men and women were able to affirm their loving relationships.   Anglican bishops had reacted to the passing of the new law by saying that there could be no blessing of these relationships in church, and certainly not a marriage ceremony.  But a few Anglican priests said that they were going to defy their bishops, some by conducting same sex weddings and some by actually marrying their same sex partner.  Adam Smallbone, BBC 2’s Rev, agonised over a request by two friends that he would marry them He settled for a mealy mouthed compromise in the form of a few wishy washy prayers.  Then he pulled himself together and married them.  The archdeacon, who had affected to be angry with Adam ended the episode by putting his telescope to his deaf ear.  It was funny, though I felt like crying.  Can’t we see a new life when it’s staring us in the face?

David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham who caused huge controversy 20 years ago with his remark that the resurrection must be more than a conjuring trick with bones, also said that he wanted to shout at  people: don’t tell me that you believe in the resurrection Show me that you do.   

Remember the words of Hosea: Yahweh has torn us but he will heal us;  He has struck us down but he will bind up our wounds.  He will bring us back to life.  On the third day he will raise us and we will live in his presence.

We have to be free to receive God’s spirit within us so that we can live in his presence, NOW.

Mothering Sunday Silliness

ImageMothering Sunday
also known as
Laetare Sunday or Holy Humour Sunday

 

This Sunday’s ‘sermon’ was a series of jokes & silly stories spread throughout the service, so here there are with notes on the order & context (and without the ad-libbed jokes and conversations with the children).

 

Today is Mothering Sunday, but It has an even older name than that, that’s Laetare Sunday.  Laetare comes from the Latin for the first word of the traditional collect for the day (Rejoice). It is also known as “Refreshment Sunday”. It was a day when, and the purple vestments of Lent could be replaced with rose coloured ones. A special kind of fruit cake was often served on this Sunday modestly breaking the Lenten Fast.

The service on Laetare Sunday would be upbeat and joyful – the other Sundays in Lent being quite solemn.  Its as if the joy of our faith just has to burst out…

In some places this Sunday is called “Bright Sunday” or, in America, “Holy Humour Sunday”

Why holy humour? Humour is found from the beginning to the end of the Bible.  We’ve heard the joke about trying to remove the speck from your neighbour’s eye when you have a log in your own so often that we have forgotten its funny…  

Voltaire once wrote: “God is a comedian playing to an audience that’s afraid to laugh.”

I want to begin today by telling you about a philosophical debate.  Its an apocryphal tale from the Middle Ages.  But there’s something almost biblical about it in how it makes you think about things even as it amuses:

It seems that the Pope, under pressure from all the Cardinals, decided that all the Jews had to leave Rome.  Naturally there was a big uproar from the Jewish community.  So the Pope made a deal.  He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community.  If the Jew won, the Jews could stay. If the Pope won, the Jews would leave.  

The Jews realised that they had no choice.  So the elders of the people picked a respected Rabbi to represent them.  Once the Cardinals had arranged the debate they were horrified to realise that it was set for the season of Lent, when this particular Pope always took a vow of silence.  The Pope and the Rabbi agreed to hold the debate in silence.

The day of the great debate came. The Rabbi and the Pope sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers.   The Rabbi looked back at him and raised one finger. 

The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head.  The Rabbi firmly pointed to the ground.

The Pope pulled out a loaf of bread and a glass of wine and he broke the bread and ate, then sipped the wine.  The Rabbi pulled out an apple and took a bite from it. 

The Pope then stood up and said, “I give up.  This man is too good.  The Jews can stay in Rome as long as they want.”  

An hour later, the cardinals were all around the Pope asking him what had happened. 

The Pope said, “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity.  He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions.  Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us and is Lord over the church.  He responded by pointing to the ground and reminding me that God may be all around, but God was also right here with us and is God of the Jews as well as of the church.  I broke bread and drank wine to show that God absolves us from our sins.  The rabbi ate of the apple to remind me of original sin and how it still affects us.  He had an answer for everything. What could I do?”

Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around the Rabbi. “What happened?” they asked. 

“Well,” said the Rabbi, “First he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out of here.  I told him that not one of us was leaving.  Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews.  I let him know that we were staying right here.” 

“And then?” asked a woman.   

“I don’t know,” said the Rabbi, “He took out his lunch and I took out mine – and now we can stay as long as want”

I read about a young minister who, while he was still single preached a sermon he entitled, “Rules for Raising Children.” After he got married and had children of his own, he changed the title of the sermon to “Suggestions for Raising Children.” When his children got to be teenagers, he stopped preaching on that subject altogether.

All families are different, all mothers and methods of mothering are different.  Some mothers work in employment, some work in the home, some bring up children on their own some live in extended families…  All families are different, but one thing is an important ingredient in the life of all these sorts of families, and that is humour.  I think most mothers would go made if they couldn’t laugh at life’s quirks and misunderstandings.  I told the story of the Rabbi and the Pope’s misunderstanding, but the misunderstandings of families and children, if greeted with a sense of humour are what can make a family joyful.

For example, a Sunday School teacher asked her little children, as they were on the way to church service, “And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?” One bright little girl replied, “Because people are sleeping.”

 

So how do we link the Laughter of Laetare Sunday with the Mothering Sunday that we all have come to expect?

Well’ I’ve already done it a little talking about laughter being an important ingredient of family life.

But I’d also like us to look at our reading…  In it Abraham and Sarah, an old childless couple are told they are going to have a child.  Sarah is too old to have a child and she laughs.

This laughter is so important that they call their child Isaac, which means laughter.

God always challenges us with the absurdities of life

Isaac is one of the great three forefathers of the faith, one of the ancient friends of God we call “Patriarchs” – he was named laughter.  And Sarah, one of the great foremothers of our faith is the one who laughed.

Laughter is a key ingredient in the family tree of our faith.

And laughter is a key ingredient in our family lives.  So as its mother’s day, I want you all to tell your mother or carer a joke today to make her laugh.  If you don’t know any jokes find one out over tea and coffee…

A read about a Church in America, called the Faith Temple Church, Sioux Falls, outside they put up a sign that read: “We welcome all denominations — $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100.”

I’m telling you this because a collection will be taken during the next hymn

The next prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving.  Like the grace – or prayer some people say before a meal.

A woman invited some people to dinner. At the table, she turned to her six-year-old daughter and said, “Would you like to say grace?”

“I wouldn’t know what to say,” the little girl replied.

“Just say what you hear Mommy say,” the mother said.

The little girl bowed her head and said: “Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?”

Our prayer in Church this morning is quite different, and we all join in the words in bold

Before the dismissal, a final piece of advice to the mothers gathered here today.  Despite coming to this joyful service, if you still have a lot of tension and you get a headache this Mothering Sunday, I suggest you do what it says on the aspirin bottle:
Take two,…. and keep away from children

And if you have found this whole service just too silly, please join in the closing response with gusto.

Leader: May the light of Christ light up your life!

All:        And up yours!

 

Fulfilling the Law – a sermon by Margaret Offerman

ImageThe Law of Moses, the Jewish Law is contained in the first 5 books of the Hebrew bible and it’s both detailed and comprehensive.  Some of the detail is quite extraordinary and suggests that the Israelites saw their God as above all a God of control.  This is Leviticus chapter 11 verse 20:  You may eat among all the [b]winged insects which walk on all fours: those which have above their feet jointed legs with which to jump on the earth. 22 These of them you may eat: the locust , and the devastating locust,  the cricket, and the grasshopper. 23 But all other [c]winged insects which are four-footed are detestable to you.  The passage which was part of this morning’s lectionary is much more of a broad sweep, a comprehensive way of living.  Keep God’s commandments, stay faithful to the monotheistic tradition  you have inherited and you will enjoy the material rewards that God has in store for those who obey him.  

The Law breaks down roughly into 3 parts, the ceremonial, the civil  and the moral law, though sometimes there are overlaps when a particular section is relevant to more than 1 area.  When you build a new house you are to give your roof a parapet, then your house will not incur blood vengeance through anyone falling from it.  This law emphasises our moral duty of care for each other’s safety.  It also contains a practical warning about the legal repercussions  of committing a criminal act.  A priest may not eat an animal that has died a natural death or been savaged by wild beasts for he would contract uncleanness from it.  This may be a simple matter of hygiene and the avoidance of disease but it’s also part of the purification that must underpin the life of a priest involved in the sacred  rituals.  

The Law was made for a people living  in the Bronze Age, on the edge of history,  groups of nomadic descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who were beginning to settle in a land and make it their own, having displaced  its former owners, the Canaanites.  They were surrounded by peoples who worshipped many gods, notably Baal and in order to keep them faithful to their one true God, Yahweh, they needed the Law to cover every eventuality.  It’s a Law of threats and promise – the law-abiding will enjoy material prosperity;  the lawless will feel the weight of God’s anger.   It seems a vast volume but of course compared to the law of any Western country, it’s a pamphlet.

The gospel passage  reminds us that although Jesus was brought up to obey the Law, he saw the need to interpret it for his generation.  Jesus moved from a prohibition  law to a much more positive  sense that it must be  supportive of men and women who are trying to act in a just, loving, sensitive way.  He  realised the importance of  obeying  the spirit of the law, sometimes instead of, sometimes as well as the letter.  In fact, in the passsage which follows our gospel reading, he goes much further than the demands of the Law – 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. And he antagonised the Law-abiding Jews by occasionally rejecting it altogether, as when he ridiculed their anxiety about plucking ears of corn on a walk on the Sabbath.  He was not afraid to  overturn the Law.  In Deuteronomy the Law is clear: 18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, 19 then [they]shall ……bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. 20 They shall say, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.  In Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son,  the rebellious young man who had committed every kind of social sin, eventually returned to his father’s house in destitution and  despair.  His father saw him coming from a great distance and abandoned what he was doing, abandoned his dignity and the constraints of old age and ran out to meet his son and bring him home to a celebration.  

I wish the church could find a united prophetic voice to interpret for our age what the Law says about the materialism that is affecting and infecting our society, afflicting  rich and poor, and which sociologists define as a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project.   In chapter 3 of the epistle to the Corinthians St Paul  expresses his  regret at  the fact that he has been unable to speak to them as people of the spirit.  Paul would be the last man to deny the importance of the Law.  Over and over again he tells the churches he writes to that inevitably they live in the material world.  (Indeed when Jesus celebrated the meal we know as the last supper, he was enshrining the principle that we will meet him in bread and wine, in  shared food.)  But, Paul says, in the last instance the values that we must live by are moral, spiritual, metaphysical, beyond the physical.  

The 10th commandment reads: you shall not covet your neighbour’s house, his wife, his manservant or maidservant, his ox, his ass, nor anything that is your neighbour’s.  Materialism is the direct opposite of the 10th commandment.  Materialism says you can’t be happy, you can’t have peace of mind,  unless your status, your dignity, your  sense of your own identity are represented in the material possessions you are surrounded with.  However,  researchers, drawing on data available since the 1980s, have shown that as people become more materialistic, their well being as it is reflected in good relationships, sense of purpose, autonomy, diminishes.  They ranked the importance of different goals – job, money, social standing on one side against self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other and found that the happier people were those who were less materialistic.  

We are mourning the deaths of 2 women who were models of Christian living in this church..  Stella Grosse and Jean Bennett lived by moral principles of giving – of their time, their energy, their money, their talents and their wisdom, wisdom which was filtered through long lives of varied experience, not always blissfully happy but always used to inform their faith and support  their way of life.  They had comfortable homes but were not defined by their possessions.  They mixed easily with a wide range of people and were not seduced by wealth or privilege.  

I’m not advocating an abandonment of all the material pleasures of life.  But I’m saying that the Jesus message is clear.  If our treasures are the ones we  lay up for ourselves  on earth, we  must be ready to accept their transitoriness.   And we need to remember the onus on us to live more simply so that others may simply live.  

When a few of us questionned members of our parish a few months ago about what they wanted from us as a church, many responded by expressing their yearning for a greater sense of community.  Materialism creates social atomisation.  For most of my lifetime we in the West  have been pursuing an economic model based on perpetual growth.  And it has had its effect in greater prosperity for a significant mass of the people.  But it has also fostered an aggressive individualism which sets us apart from each other.  Boris Johnson was characteristically straightforward about this in a lecture he gave before Christmas.  He said that he didn’t believe that economic equality is possible , (and few of us would disagree with that on the present evidence).  He went on: Indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy, …….that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.  

I listened to the radio news and I scanned the newspaper but couldn’t find  a speech putting  the church’s case for another world view.  

I suspect that few of us in this church would be happy with the idea that the main fact of our identity is that we are consumers.  Somehow we have to find a way of communicating to those outside  that worldly ambition and  material aspiration are not  a formula for happiness or ultimate fulfilment.