Category Archives: Lent For Everyone

Do You Know This Man?

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30am Eucharist on 22nd March 2015. It was part of our series working, as a parish, through Tom Wright’s “Lent for Everyone – Mark (Year B)” book. With this in mind, the readings were Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10 and Mark 11:12-25.

The Angry Christ

As you came in, each of you should have received a picture – one free in every pack! It looks a bit like an old cigarette card, doesn’t it. Take a good look at it now. Do you know this man? The flashing eyes, the pointing finger, the snarl, the teeth – this surely can’t be Jesus? Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, strolling around in his socks and sandals, stroking his beard, tossing his long flowing hair like he’s in a L’Oreal advert – that’s how He looked, surely. Not this maniac who looks like He’s about to reach through the card & black our eyes!

Personally, I’ve liked this picture ever since I saw it. It challenges me. Because it is so easy to, in effect, dehumanise Jesus by focusing solely on His kindness, His compassion, even His wisdom, but avoiding some of His emotion, His passion. The ‘nice’ bits of his personality are certainly important – the fact He loves us is undeniable to anybody who has read even just one of the Gospels – but Jesus was fully God and FULLY man.

But does that excuse His behaviour in this Gospel reading?

Because, on the surface, He’s being a bit irrational. In the first part of chapter 11, He’s welcomed into Jerusalem like a returning hero, with shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Palm branches and cloaks were laid in His path – all the stuff we’ll think on next Sunday. But maybe the power has gone to His head? Sent Him a bit off track. This is the following day, the morning after the night before, and Jesus is hungry, but as the fig tree has no fruit He curses it. The following day they find it withered. Quite harsh when you think it wasn’t even fig season! Maybe Angry Christ has lost the plot a bit?

But Mark doesn’t waste words – or show Jesus as anything other than the fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies. This is another classic Markan sandwich, where Mark places a similar story either side of a passage to help us understand what is going on.

Jesus has gone to the Temple to find fruit – you could say the fruits of the Spirit – but instead has found the rich exploiting the poor, those with power oppressing those with none, those on the fringes of society, the marginalised, being excluded from any chance of offering proper, lawful homage to their God in His House. After all, it should be a house of prayer “for all the nations” – not just those who can afford the money changers charges.

So Jesus decides to teach the people a lesson – no, not in that way, but in the manner of one of the prophets of old. He enacts God’s word, driving out those who are exploiting the people – then, it says, He teaches them by using words of scripture. No wonder the chief priests and scribes were so angry when they heard what had happened – all of those who found out about the days events, especially in the light of the triumphal entry the day before, would see Jesus as at the very least acting like a messenger from God – and would be aghast to hear the prophecy was, in effect, accusing them of the same failings of their ancestors. Best get Him out of the way before He does much more damage.

So when we, His modern disciples, alongside those followers with Him at the time, see the fig tree, it seems to tell us that Jesus wasn’t some maniac who was eager for figs to be available all year round – a kind of prophetic nod to our modern selection of goods in the supermarkets – but an indication of His point. If the tree does not produce good fruit, it is no use. If the tree is sick at its roots, the whole thing ceases to function. If the worship of the Jewish people was rooted in the temple, and the temple and its keepers were rotten, then God’s Kingdom was under threat.

So this passage isn’t justifying all anger – I am as guilty as anyone at losing my temper inappropriately. When hurt or challenged, even if the other person is right, it can be hard to hold back, not to react & let rip in their direction. But being angry about some things is entirely appropriate.

See how Mark cleverly plays off the unjustified anger of the authorities at being told, entirely correctly, they were not fulfilling their duty to the kingdom, against Jesus righteous anger on behalf of God’s people, oppressed, downtrodden & put upon by those claiming to do it in the name of God.

There are many situations today we, as Jesus disciples, as God’s people on earth, should be rightfully angry about. Oxfam reported that by next year 1% of the world’s population will own more than half the world’s wealth – they will own more of the world’s wealth than the whole other 99% added together! While people across the globe, including in our own country, struggle to afford shelter, warmth, even food – 1 in 9 people go to bed hungry each night, and more people die from hunger than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined each year – just a fraction sit on the means to stop hunger forever. And on the subject of malaria, anyone who watched Comic Relief a week last Friday will now know mosquito nets, which can prevent thousands of children dying from malaria, are two for a fiver. Yet thousands die from malaria each year, as they can’t get the nets. I think that should make us angry.

Closer to home, big corporations, rich individuals, are evading tax – sometimes assisted by our own financial institutions, if the allegations in the press were true a few weeks ago, which takes away valuable income which could elevate austerity measures in this country. I think that should make us angry.

Child sexual exploitation, ethnic cleansing, FGM, people trafficking, executions, racism, sexism, homophobia – we are right to get angry about these things – especially when supposedly carried out in the name of ‘god’ – as each one of them, just as was the case in the temple, are ways that those who have authority, who hold the power, abuse and oppress others – which is the complete opposite of God’s kingdom, of His plan for each and every one of us.

Terry Pratchett, who sadly passed away recently, wrote something helpful in his novel Carpe Jugulum. Granny Weatherwax is arguing with a member of a religious sect:

“sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that—” he argues

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

The money changers were treating God’s children, coming to His house to worship, as a revenue stream, as a conveyer belt of profit. The authorities were allowing this to happen. Jesus anger was directed at those who were treating their brothers and sisters, our brothers and sisters, created each one in the image of God, as things.

As we approach Good Friday, when Jesus was beaten, mocked, abused and killed for each one of us – and Easter Day when He rose again to lead us to eternal life – we need to hold on to the fact he did it for each member of this world’s population, however rich or poor, strong or weak. We are called to be angry on behalf of those who are powerless, however close to home or far away they are, and use that anger to try and make a difference.

The House of Bishops letter that dared to suggest politicians may want to seek “a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be,” caused anger and derision from many people, a lot of whom it seems have a vested interest in the current system. “Christians should stay out of politics,” was the accusation. “Religion and politics don’t mix.” It was up to the comedian David Mitchell to point out “If church leaders can’t complain about poverty who on Earth can?”

Through prayer, through our buying choices, through our votes & our willingness to hold to account those elected into authority over us, by our relationships with friends, neighbours and strangers, we can help further God’s kingdom on earth. Let’s take the time to look into issues that affect the poorest in our society, locally and globally, let’s allow ourselves to be moved, upset, challenged and become righteously angry this Lent and beyond, and to ask God our Father, through His incarnate Son Jesus Christ who knew and experienced every range of human emotions, to fill us with His Spirit and guide us to radically love our neighbour, and our perceived enemy, and seek to change things for good.

It seems a huge ask – it may seem like I can’t possibly mean us here. But I do, and we can.

We are all blessed by God, loved by God, empowered by his Spirit. Look around you – We are the body of Christ. Together we can make a huge difference. How??

“Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’”

Amen.

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The Greatest Mam?

This sermon was preached at St. Peter’s 11am Eucharist on 15th March 2015 – Mothering Sunday. It was part of our series working, as a parish, through Tom Wright’s “Lent for Everyone – Mark (Year B)” book. With this in mind, the readings were Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10 & Mark 9:33-41.

So, Mothering Sunday is upon us, and up and down the country we are celebrating the truly remarkable people who we have the privilege to call Mam – whether they are with us or not, their love & care helped make us who we are today. I’m fortunate to have a good relationship with my Mam – or Mum as I should call her or if she reads this she’ll tell me off for talking funny – and truly blessed to have such an amazing wife and unbelievably good mother to our children. Then, take my mother-in-law – somebody, please, take her… no, I’m joking. Since moving to this part of the world she’s looked out for me like her own son.

But for some, it is a day to quietly acknowledging the pain, the difficulty, even the anger that came out of our maternal relationship, or our relationship with our own bairns, or the children we never got to meet. I think, just as for some the image of God the Father is wrapped up in the mess that was their relationship with their own earthly dad, days like today are, for some, a reminder of what never was, or what might have been.

Of course, many of us here know Mothering Sunday originated during the sixteenth century, when people went “a-mothering” – that is, they returned to their mother church, the main church or cathedral of the area, for a service. In later years, it became a day when domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mother church, usually with their own mothers and other family members. Children would pick wild flowers along the way to place in the church or give to their mothers, something which eventually evolved into the Mother’s Day tradition of boosting Hallmark & Thornton’s profits – sorry, of giving gifts to mothers.

Many of these cards run along the same lines – “World’s Greatest Mum,” “You’re The Best,” “If Mam’s Were Flowers, I’d Pick You,” that kind of thing. And they sell like hot cakes because that’s how we like to think of, or remember, our Mam – as the greatest. To affirm their role in our lives, to show them we value them and possibly disguise the fact that for the other 364 days of the year we kind of take them for granted. Those Mam’s here today – when you receive a card like this, how does it make you feel? What does the sentiment mean? Because what I think we’re saying, and hopefully hearing, in these cards isn’t the world’s usual definition of being the greatest. Some say their Mam is great because of the way she is or was always there when needed, a constant presence to talk to, confide in, sooth hurts or give encouragement and praise. Some say it’s because of her cooking ability, or at least the provision of food, comfort, warmth, shelter – ♪ ♫ the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities ♫ ♪ – but done in her special way with love & care. For some it’s the sense of protection, sticking up for us when we need it – and then, shall we be diplomatic and say encourage us to re-evaluate our behaviour, but always done to help us learn from our mistakes and to inspire us to be the best version of ourselves we can be.

Interesting, isn’t it. Especially when we look at these ideas alongside our Gospel passage – not thrown up as a suitable reading by the lectionary but here as it’s the next in our Lenten journey together through Tom Wright’s book. The disciples are having an argument about who is the greatest. Ironically, given what is about to be said, it’s a bit like one of those arguments kids have – “my Dad’s bigger than your Dad,” “Sunderland are better than Newcastle,(though not Aston Villa, obviously)” “I bet I can spit the furthest,” you know the kind of thing. The wonderful Sir Terry Pratchett, who sadly passed away this week, wrote in his novel Hogfather

“It was nice to hear the voices of little children at play, provided you took care to be far enough away not to hear what they were actually saying.”

So Jesus, assuming the role of parent, sits them down & explains how the world is supposed to work. Being the greatest isn’t about how much power we wield, what we possess, our status or how many people bow to us. It’s not even about how many years we’ve come to church. It’s about how we are with each other. It’s about putting others first. It’s about love.

He then uses a child to drive home his point. What can be seen as less powerful, less important in a worldly, material sense, than a child? They don’t provide anything of material worth, they just consume. They don’t cook or clean or bring reasoned, rational debate – but they do bring laughter, comfort, tears, heartbreak and love. Bairns, our own and other peoples, keep us grounded and realistic by the way they wear their hearts on their sleeves and ask the awkward questions that we as adults are too tactful, or too scared to ask. Why do we do it that way? Why can’t I eat the sweet things before the main meal? Why do you tell me I need to love my neighbour when you just called Mr Smith at 23 that word I’m not supposed to say…

It has been a real privilege to be here when children come round to visit this church with their schools, and the work the education group has put in so far has been amazing. The children feel welcomed, at home & remark with wonder on the building and the history and ask questions about God & Christianity. Sometimes they are noisy, sometimes the questions seem a bit silly, but they are usually asked with honesty and a desire to understand.

I wonder if today, when we walked in here for the service, we felt a sense of wonder, excitement, anticipation about being in this place, coming to worship, speak to and hear from the living God?

If not, can we remember the last time we did? Did we come here to give as well as receive – not just financially, but our hearts, our attention, our praise & thanks? Did we come here to serve as well as to be served?

The Church as an institution, the church as us, the body of Christ, has a great deal in common with a Mother. It is, or should be, always there when needed, with not just the clergy but also fellow members of our church family a constant presence to talk to, confide in, sooth hurts or give encouragement and praise. It provides food – spiritually, metaphorically and physically – as well as comfort, warmth and shelter – with love & care. It gives a sense of protection, sticking up for us when we need it – occasionally encouraging us to re-evaluate our behaviour, but always in a way to help us learn from our mistakes and to inspire us to be the best version of ourselves we can be, through the love of Jesus and the presence of His Holy Spirit with us, as well as the through the accountability of our loving, non-judgmental relationships with each other and all who come to us. At least, it should.

And I think, a lot of the time, it does. But just as some of us here may struggle with difficult, even painful memories on Mothering Sunday, some have been hurt by fellow Christians, or by the Church itself. Perhaps some of us fear we have hurt others somewhere down the line? Maybe it was done with the best of intentions, but nonetheless have made them feel they are not welcome – possibly in this church, possibly in God’s family.

And if we recognize any of that, today is as good as any to ask God to help us forgive that hurt, to seek reconciliation and set right those things that have gone wrong, and begin to seek again that sense of loving relationship that a church family can bring, that blessing we as St. Peter’s can be to the whole community.

So today, I want to finish with two things. Firstly, we should give thanks for mothers everywhere – especially our own – and pray for those who find today hard for so many reasons. And secondly, a bit of a challenge. Are we ready and willing to be parented – to be loved and valued as much as the greatest mother loves her children, to come with childlike awe & wonder into God’s presence again? And are we ready to parent all those whom Christ puts in our path to care for, both inside & outside of this Church?

Lent is a pretty good time to think about this kind of stuff. And, although it seems really tough, I truly believe we can do this together. Don’t just take my word for it – as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, we can do this because

“God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace we have been saved. He raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Amen

Mothering Sunday 2

Seeing Past The Pigs

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am & All Saints 10:30am Eucharist on 1st March 2015. It was part of our series working, as a parish, through Tom Wright’s “Lent for Everyone – Mark (Year B)” book.  With this in mind, the readings were Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Romans 4:13-25 & Mark 5:1-20.

I’ve mentioned to some of you before that I see it as a one of the highlights of my role to be involved with one of our best local primary schools, Seaburn Dene. It’s a great privilege to be able to work alongside the dedicated staff & hard working students, and to chat to parents, grandparents and carers at the school gates. But something I find interesting is how people view me and my role there.

To some I’m sure I’m still just ‘some vicar’ who they see wandering in and out, turning up at the odd event & maybe shuffling kids around, not really paying me much attention. To some I’m Reverend Child, as that’s what the head calls me – or Mr Reverend Child, as a delightful lass called Amy called me when she wanted to get my attention – who they know is there & may be on nodding or smiling terms, but not much more. And to some I’m just the dad of my children – or Paul – as we’ve talked, built a relationship, broken down some barriers. Three different ideas about me, all accurate parts of who I am, each of which I’m sure affects how those who hold the view relate to me.

As we explore this part of Mark’s Gospel we find Mark, in a short space, manages to paint three pictures of Jesus – show three impressions people held of him, as he turns up & performs an exorcism on the east side of the Sea of Galilee.

The first reaction is that of the man with the unclean spirit, who describes Jesus as a tormentor – Tom Wright even translates this as “torturer.”

Shocking words, and probably for us here something we can’t relate to, but bear with me.

I don’t know about you, but I find the treatment of this poor man to be a sad, scandalous tale. He lives in the graveyard, shunned by a society who don’t know what to do with him so try to restrain, to hide, to trap him and keep him well away. No wonder he is so distrustful of strangers, as he shows when Jesus arrives. When you read through Tom Wright’s observations tomorrow you’ll find out some of his interpretation of how the man came to be in such a state. But however he has come to this point, when He first encounters Jesus the possessed man is frightened. The voices in His head recognise Jesus as a game changer, and play on their hosts’ natural wariness of other people, born out of long experience of mistreatment and abuse of him as people struggle to cope with his ‘condition.’ Hence why he accuses Jesus in such strong terms.

But maybe this view isn’t overly different to that some still hold in society today. How many times do we hear people say they can’t go to church because they’re “not good enough?” At various events, baptisms, weddings, even funerals, you may overhear people joking about watching out for lightning bolts as they cross the threshold.

Many a true word is spoken in jest, and what we see is people who fear judgement, who fear not just that those in church will be holier than thou or too nice, but that their lives will not be as ‘good’ as they hope them to be & they will be cast out, or punished, for their wrongs, the things they hear the church call ‘sins.’

Maybe some of us here can relate to that feeling. It’s not an unnatural reaction, given how some portray Christianity as a list of things you can’t do, or as they look in the press at the latest division in the church over women or homosexuality. Some have even experienced that sense of judgement from other churchgoers, or even clergy. But look at how Jesus reacts. Instead of attacking the man, or trying to defend himself, put the shutters up & cast him aside, Jesus listens, Jesus asks questions, and Jesus seeks to help.

He doesn’t point out how the man has got himself into this situation, or lecture him on the dangers of consorting with demons or his lifestyle before they met. He just seeks to make his life better, to help him to be restored to the man God created him to be.

And that leads us on to Mark’s next image – Jesus as liberator. We know Jesus lived and died and rose again to free us from the sin that stopped us being in a relationship with God – at least we talk about it and acknowledge it.

Do we really know it – do we really believe that we, I, am saved from death and granted eternal life through the blood of Jesus Christ. That I can rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and guide me in my walk with the Father?

This man’s life was completely transformed by his encounter with Jesus – who then commissioned him to tell ‘his people’ what the Lord had done for him. When we allow Jesus into our lives, when we accept Him as saviour it really is a game changer – and part of that change is to share the miracle of our rebirth with those around us, and help them to discover this amazing, loving Lord for themselves.

For this to happen we need to maintain our relationship with God, to rely on His love for us & daily be renewed by Him, by spending time with Him in prayer & the scriptures, and allowing Him to work in our lives.

But this is challenging, as we see in Mark’s final image – Jesus as disruptor, as a disturber, as somebody who rocks the boat. The Gerasenes would probably not have been so keen for Jesus to leave if He had just come in and metaphorically patted them on the head and affirmed everything they were doing. Instead he challenged them by performing the exorcism, and by allowing the Legion to destroy the heard of pigs.

Tom Wright picks up on this, and it’s a good point to raise – why would a Jewish community have a heard of pigs? What other use would they have other than for food – something that any good, law-abiding Jewish person wouldn’t eat. So maybe the removal of the pigs reminded them that actually some of the things that they had convinced themselves were ok were really not. Maybe they simply looked past the healed man and saw the dead pigs – after all, it seems a peculiar quirk of human nature that we can value things over our brothers and sisters, profit over people, status and power over justice and mercy. Just look at the reaction in some quarters over the House of Bishops letter that dared to suggest politicians may want to seek “a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be,” ranging from telling them to keep their noses out to accusations of them taking political sides, instead of pausing an thinking they may have a point – surely 913,138 people receiving 3 days emergency food and support from foodbanks in between April 2013- March 2014 was 913,138 people too many.

We know only too well that a relationship with Jesus changes us. As we allow His Spirit to move in us it changes the way we see things, the way we see people, helps us to love more and judge less – or at least, it should. Maybe we need to let Jesus disrupt as afresh once in a while, let Him illuminate the things we hide in the dark bits of ourselves and look to readjust our thinking a bit – after all, that’s what we do in lent, isn’t it?

So just as I am seen in different ways when I’m at the school, Jesus means different things to different people.

And we, as His disciples, face the challenge of showing who he really is to those we know and meet. We can reassure through our words and actions those who fear Him – not in the healthy, respectful way those who believe in Him are called to “Fear the Lord” but in a misunderstanding, judgemental way – that Jesus comes to bring healing, mercy and love, to help us to be the best version of ourselves we can be. We can show the great liberation a relationship with Christ brings – freedom from fear, freedom from death, freedom from that which stops us being fully alive. And we can show that although change does come, it is change for the better, change that comes from a loving relationship and a desire to heal us and make us whole.

As we continue our journey together through Lent, towards the pain and darkness of Good Friday and the glorious healing and light of Easter Day, maybe we should ask our loving Lord and Saviour to renew and refresh us again today – that as we remember His sacrifice made once upon the cross for each one of us, we find the strength and courage to see each other, and ourselves, through His eyes, to see who He calls us to be and allow Him to help us be it. To allow Him to free us, to heal us and to love us.

Amen.

Gerasene demoniac saved