Tag Archives: disciples of Jesus

Blue, Peter?

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30am Eucharist’s on 28th June 2015 as we celebrated the feast of St. Peter. The readings were Ezekiel 3:22-27, Acts 12: 1-11 & Matthew 16:13-19.

I’m currently reading through an excellent book called “More TV Vicar” by Revd. Bryony Taylor, curate at St Michael & All Angels in Houghton-Le-Spring. Now, I’m not just saying this because she’s a friend, but it’s a great little book about the portrayal of Christians, mainly clergy, on television through the ages – leading to nostalgic reminisces of some characters & a desire to look up (or in the case of some of the ‘bad’ ones, massively avoid) some of the shows and folk depicted.

More TV VicarBut interestingly, this little trip through the archives of British pop culture has reminded me just how much easier we as human beings relate to somebody if we can immediately find common ground with them. Think of some of the clergy characters you can remember from TV or radio over the years. People loved Geraldine Grainger, the Vicar of Dibley, because she was above all else very human, with failings and vulnerabilities there for all to see, and played to great comedic effect by the irrepressible Dawn French. People find other characters distasteful or unpleasant precisely as they are drawn to show a lack of humanity, making them harder for us to understand or find a mutual understanding with – again, created that way by writers looking to achieve certain emotions from their audience.

I think this is why so many of us feel drawn to St. Peter. He is undoubtedly my favourite disciple, probably because I can really relate to his efforts to try to be the man he thinks Jesus wants him to be, to try & approach everything with complete trust and faith – and yet always manages to mess it up somehow.

The lectionary has very kindly let us focus today on Peter’s great declaration of faith in Jesus – the great reveal of who Jesus really is, the ‘hinge’ point of Matthew’s whole Gospel. But if we were to begin the second half of the Gospel we would see things go sour rather quickly. Matthew explains in verse 21 how

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Peter’s first act is to do something completely understandable but also completely wrong. Six verses separate Jesus heaping praise on Peter’s discernment and rebuking him for his focus on human things over the divine. We go from

“‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”

to

“he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

St PeterSo Peter is the very epitome of the phrase “God loves a trier.” And this is what makes him so endearing. But more than that, he gives us as God’s people, Jesus disciples here in this place hope and encouragement that even we, even I, have a special place in God’s kingdom & can achieve His works, fulfil His calling in our lives.

Jesus knows us inside out. He knew Peter inside out. He knew what was in Peter’s heart, the confession of Jesus as Messiah, and gave him the chance to let it out, to test if he had it right. He also knew Peter would say something stupid about His passion & crucifixion, that Peter like all the other disciples would not get what He meant when He spoke of dying and rising for the salvation of all human kind, that Peter would deny Him when He was arrested and taken away despite swearing he never would. And yet Jesus still says to him, as we just heard,

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

From here on in plain Simon the fisherman is The Rock, Jesus right hand man and the church’s unique foundation, yet still servant to all his fellow disciples.

Both Luke in his Gospel and Paul in his Epistles back up Peter’s role as first among equals among the apostles – Luke, in the same passage Jesus predicts Peter’s cock-crow cock-up, records Jesus telling him

“once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers and sisters,”

while Paul writes in Galatians that he sought out Peter first after his call and conversion, and notes Peter was the first of the twelve to see Jesus when He was resurrected in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Peter is regarded as the chief apostle because of his powerful living faith in Jesus – but I also think Peter is regarded as the greatest apostle as he not only represents each one of us in scripture but voices our fears, anxieties and even doubts directly to Jesus, yet is still loved and welcomed.

So despite Peter’s many failings, despite his background and upbringing, despite his tendency to open his mouth before his brain had fully kicked in, Peter’s faith, his deep love for Jesus, set him up as an example for all to look to.

And what an example. Repeatedly stepping out in faith, repeatedly trying again in the face of seemingly horrible mistakes and, eventually, being tasked with the keys to the kingdom.

And it is this final point I feel we really should seek to be inspired by. It’s perfectly natural to see Peter sitting by the pearly gates letting in the good and seeing off the bad, like some kind of heavenly bouncer. But in reality, Peter was called to be chief missionary of the Easter message, to unlock the gates of heaven through his preaching and helping clear the way for us, the gentiles, through his experience with Cornelius as recorded in Acts 10.

Dare we allow ourselves to approach Jesus as Peter did – fully trusting Him despite his own doubts as to what some of His message meant; willing to make mistakes and take chances for Him in the sure and certain hope He will be there to help and guide us; ready to turn back in true repentance when we really mess up; and to actively seek with all our hearts the lost, whatever their background or understanding of the faith we proclaim, and guide them through the gates that lead to eternal life? Because if we do, we too could rock this world.

Amen

“More TV Vicar? Christians on the Telly: The Good, the Bad and the Quirky!” is available now from all good bookstores, including Eden & Amazon.

God looks at your…

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am Eucharist on 14th June 2015a and All Saints 10:00am Eucharist on 17th June 2015. The readings were 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 11-13, 14-17, Mark 4:26-34.

Many of you will know that, not long after I came to faith I travelled to the North East of Brazil to work as a volunteer with the Baptist Missionary Society. Part of the role was, on our return from 6 months overseas, to tour the UK for 3 months speaking in churches, schools, youth clubs – anywhere that would have us really – encouraging people to support prayerfully and financially the work of the organisation, and to look at the mission possibilities in their lives, both overseas and on their doorstep.

In one school we took a lesson with a group of primary age children, and decided to write out some of the words, albeit in a different translation, that we heard in our Old Testament reading this morning. 1 Samuel 16:7b:

“man looks at your outward appearance, but God looks at your heart.”

A group of children each had a board with one of the words written on it, and the remaining bairns had to arrange them, one move at a time, to form the complete passage. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Each move I read out the resulting sentence with great gusto – which was fine until, too late, I realised they had arranged it so it read

“man looks at your outward appearance, God looks at your but(t)”

– howls of laughter followed.

So that verse has stuck with me ever since. But that’s quite a fitting way to remember it, I think. It seems to me that now more than ever before the world wants to judge people, especially women, by their outside appearance. The advent of social media and the internet as a whole has fuelled this, but advertising, TV, films, newspapers, gossip magazines all seem obsessed with “the body beautiful,” dismissing personality, intellect or emotional skills to focus on mammary glands and posterior parts, hair, teeth and eyebrows of any female who puts her head above the parapet and dares voice an opinion. As a father to three daughters this worries me, as I don’t want them to see how you look or dress as they key to happiness. As a father to a son it worries me, as I don’t want him to fall into the trap of looking at women that way & missing out on the depth of relationship both they and he deserves.

As Christians we can sometimes outwardly judged ourselves. We are stereotyped as boring, irrelevant, mad even, for declaring a faith in God, or coming to church. Some of us may even feel tempted to keep our heads down and avoid the gaze of others, lest we stand out & are ridiculed.

But as a church, we too need to be wary of how we look at those we meet. It’s easy to raise an eyebrow at the hair and hemlines of those who come to us for wedding and baptism services, to be put off or even scared of people who dress differently, behave differently, who are just….different. How can we communicate the Gospel to them – they won’t be interested, they won’t understand…

God looks at your heart. God looks at their heart too. As God’s children we are blessed by the Holy Spirit, empowered to share the good news to whoever we meet, however young or old, however different they seem.

By showing love not fear, warmth not distance, care not judgement, we can be the first step on somebody’s journey to faith – or even the last step on their making a commitment to Christ. After all, although I’m everyone in this room dressed sensibly, never listened to loud ‘unsuitable’ music, behaved impeccably and understood all there was to know about Christianity and Jesus love for the world just like that (finger snap) from day one… I didn’t – and if it wasn’t for the love and acceptance of Christian folk who were different to me, I never would have.

David was written off because he didn’t look the part – too young, too small. Look where he ended up. As the current Bishop of Durham says, “Never underestimate the small.” Our small actions, our small prayers, our small acts of love, driven by what we may even see as the smallest amount of faith can and will be the big difference in somebody’s life, the tiny mustard seed which grows into the massive tree of life, spilling out from us to our neighbours to their neighbours to our world.

Paul urged the Corinthians – urges us – to “walk by faith not sight.” Because, he says, “from now on…we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Let us always strive to show all our neighbours, those we welcome into our church and those we go out to meet, the chance to find that fresh start, that healing touch, that amazing love made available to us by the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen

God looks at the heart

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.

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

0 Shades of Grey

This sermon was preached at All Saints 10:30am Eucharist and St. Andrew’s 6pm Evensong on 15th February 2015. The readings were 2 Kings 2:1-12, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 and Mark 9:2-9.

Over the past couple of weeks a certain book, which has also been made into a movie, has made headlines across the country. This has been great for me, as the book in question is one of my all-time favourites, and the media talk has put me in mind of some of my favourite moments, inspiring me to watch the movie last night.

I am of course talking about “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and the shock announcement that the ‘lost’ manuscript for the sequel has been found and will be published in July.

I’m sure many of you here are familiar with the tale, if only from the film version starring the amazing Gregory Peck, but in case you are not it’s the story of a small town lawyer called Atticus Finch, his young son Jem and daughter Scout. Set in the rural south of the USA during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Atticus is raising his children aided only by his black housekeeper. To begin with, the children just see Atticus as a normal father, enjoying a close relationship despite referring to him by his first name, and vaguely aware of how some of his eccentricities affect their lives (not playing in the local Methodist baseball team and his respect for the black community, for example). But one day, their understanding of Atticus is changed, altered, by the arrival of a mad dog, which is spotted foaming at the mouth in the street near the Finch home. Sheriff Tate arrives with his rifle, but when he sees Atticus, he gives the weapon to him and asks him to shoot. The children are very surprised at this. Atticus calmly takes aim and fires. The dog falls in its tracks. The children are amazed, especially when the sheriff tells him that their father is regarded as the best shot in the county.

Atticus is so quiet and unassuming that his children are not aware of what a special man their father is. Only after dispatching the dog, and later through the main crux of the book which deals with deeply-ingrained Southern state racism, do Scout and Jem come to see him for who he really is. He is, in effect, transfigured in their eyes, no longer just their old dad.

Mark’s version of the transfiguration of Jesus is the hinge point of the Gospel, marking the transition from Jesus life & ministry to His death and resurrection. Just after Peter has hit the nail on the head by declaring Jesus to be the Christ, then been hugely chastised for suggesting the passion could be avoided, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain, away from the others.

We as readers know a key incident is about to take place – the “high mountain” is the place nearest to heaven, and throughout scripture Godly incidents happen on mountains. So it is here when, suddenly, Jesus is transfigured and his clothes shine so bright, become so dazzling, that it can only be the glory of God shining out from Him – there’s no shades of grey here! Think of the light that blinded Paul on the Damascus Road, or of Moses receiving the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments engraved, also on a mountain, & the way his face shone with the reflected glory of God when he descended. And speaking of Moses, there he is with Elijah chatting to Jesus.

Of course, Elijah himself as no stranger to meeting with God on a mountain – his experience of the “still small voice” on Mount Sinai was arguably less dramatic, but no less profound.

So with all this going on is it any wonder the three disciples don’t know what to do! Then Peter, dear Peter, tries his best to grasp the situation & offers to make shelters for the three Holy men – maybe to keep their glory safely in one place, maybe because the only way he could deal with such an amazing, intense experience of God was to safely box it up separately from the rest of his life, to try to do something practical with it.

Then the voice from the cloud – the revelation to those there of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah who has come in Glory and Power; not in battle dress to crush the Romans but, as Jesus will allude to shortly after they come down from the mountain, as the suffering servant who will give His life as a ransom for many.

This is what I mean by the hinge – this is the second of three instances where Jesus is declared “Son of God” in Mark.

The first is by the Father to Jesus Himself when He is baptized, as He begins His earthly ministry and the Spirit descends on Him like a dove. The third is at His crucifixion – itself almost a reverse transfiguration as Jesus hangs abandoned, beaten, bloodied and dying right at the end of the Gospel, leading a Roman soldier to cry out “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

So here God almost parallels and affirms Peter’s confession from the previous chapter, while also showing the reality of that which Peter tried to deny – Jesus upcoming passion. When read as a whole with verses 9-13, this middle section of Mark shows glory and suffering, lowliness and majesty.

Obviously things can never be the same again for these three disciples. They have witnessed something that will only make true sense after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but even before that such an encounter changes a person – just like our encounters with God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit should change, have changed, us.

Some of us will be able to put our fingers on moments when we have had such encounters with God – some of us may find that more difficult.

So I guess the question is… where on the mountain do you feel you are today? It’s possible some of us are still summoning up the courage to take a few steps higher, knowing that folk say there are great things to be seen and experienced but hesitant of what it might mean, how it might change things. Some of us carry the experience of seeing the blinding light of the transfigured Lord at some point, or at least have the conviction to keep seeking it. It’s possible though, that this in itself complicates things – because like Peter we’re not sure what to do with what we’ve found, and are not convinced anyone would even believe us if we told them! So in our confusion we find ourselves looking to build shelters, trying to find a way to package up, to keep inside this revelation as our special thing, in our special place.

Because it can be a difficult thing, sustaining the reality of God’s love for us in our lives.

Despite all we’ve seen over the years, all we have experienced, we still forget, or lose focus, especially in a world so damaged by fear, greed and oppression. But take heart. As I said earlier, just before the transfiguration Peter had made his profession of Jesus as Christ – rapidly followed by the “get behind me Satan” incident. Not long after today’s Gospel passage the disciples, including James and John, argue over who the greatest. Mark is not afraid to show those closest to Jesus were constantly messing up – yet He corrects them, helps them move on – and moves on with them. As he does with us. We can’t earn our salvation any more than we can put Jesus in a booth, shelter or box, however church-shaped and beautiful it may be.

So I hope I can encourage all of us here to make the full journey up the mountain with me this morning. Let us step out truly believing that, as we celebrate the Eucharist in a few minutes time Christ will come and meet with us again.

That we can glimpse the light of His glory if only fleetingly, then go out into the world with our faces shining as a light to all we meet. That the experience we have this Sunday, and every day we take the time to consciously come into God’s presence, will reawaken our knowledge of who Jesus is and the amazing gift He has given us – the gift of eternal life, of forgiveness from sins and a relationship with He who created us. That through the gift of His Spirit we are renewed and refreshed to further His kingdom on earth, made fully alive by His presence with us.

This all sounds very grand – well, the view from the top of a mountain usually is. But just as Scout & Jem could never look at Atticus the same way again, once we allow Jesus to reveal Himself to us our lives take on a new meaning. So today I want to encourage all of us to keep climbing up the mountain, keep coming close to Jesus & marvelling at his glory, looking for transformation, healing, refreshment & renewal – but then to remember the world around us is crying out for the same light. Let’s have the courage to take all we’ve found out with us, because as Paul so excellently put it,

“the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Amen

Icon_Transfiguration1

♪ ♫ Got To Get You Into My Life ♫ ♪

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am and All Saints 10:30am Eucharist services on 1st February 2015, as we celebrated The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The readings were Malachi 3:1-5, Hebrews 2:14-18 & Luke 2:22-40.

Nestling safely in my mam’s record collection is something a little special. Now, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you when I say ‘record,’ I mean a proper LP – I think the cool kids call them ‘vinyl’ these days. When I were younger I was flicking through to see what she had, when I came across ‘Revolver’ by The Beatles. I’m very fond of The Beatles and, in my opinion, this is one of their best albums, from the opening count in of Taxman (one…two…three…four [cough] one two three four!) to the drum and bass hook of Tomorrow Never Knows, its closing track – though some only remember it for “Yellow Submarine!”

But this particular copy is a bit different. It was recorded in ‘mono,’ not stereo. This means it’s all recorded on one audio channel, unlike a stereo recording which has more than one and can give the effect of movement between speakers or different instruments coming from different sides. Nowadays, almost all the re-releases, beatles-revolverCD’s and downloads of ‘Revolver’ use the stereo mix, so this mono recording, with different versions of some of the songs, is rarer than others available – and so worth a few quid more to those who value this kind of thing. But, apart from the word mono printed on the sleeve in not-particularly-large letters, you wouldn’t know this record was any different by just a glance. If, however, you were to spend time with somebody who knows and cares about the subject, they would help you to realise you have to look at it properly, listen to it, to discover it is actually worth more than you realised.

When I read through the Bible, especially the more narrative works like the Gospels, I like to try & take time to picture the scene, to immerse myself in what is going on around the characters at the time. And as this passage from Luke, which we revisit year after year at this time, is one of those that we could easily just let wash over us through sheer repetition if we are not careful, I think it deserves a little care & thought.

A young couple enter the temple with a six week old baby. They are poor, as Luke talks of a pair of turtle-doves or young pigeons being offered as the sacrifice, which was acceptable in place of a lamb and a pigeon in cases of hardship.

They are just one more couple among many, doing their religious duty according to the Law of Moses, apparently no different to any others there. But an old man spots them through the crowds, and something leaps inside him. He is moved by the Holy Spirit to go across to them, to take the child in his arms and some of the most wonderful words in the New Testament pour out of him – words that have since been used a great deal by the Church in both funeral services and every night in Compline, or Night Prayer, to bring comfort & blessing – the words we now call the Nunc Dimmitis.

They must be in the outer courts of the temple when they meet Simeon as women were not allowed inside, and both parents are present and stand amazed at what they hear. Some call this celebration day “Candlemas,” and it is at this point it seems a light is switched on, the amazing events of the night of Jesus birth are affirmed by Simeon & God’s love blazes into the darkness of God’s fallen world – at least to us.

For all around them, as Simeon sings praises and blesses the Holy couple people go about their business, oblivious to the long-promised Messiah being cradled in their midst. Anybody who had taken the time to listen, to take a proper look, may have discovered the truth. As it is, it seems only one other person does – an old Prophetess called Anna, who comes over to praise God, then spends the rest of her life in the temple “speak[ing] about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

What an amazing sight to behold – the old man & old woman, a life searching for the coming King now fulfilled, the young married couple, just beginning their new lives together and not knowing what to expect from the amazing gift they have been given, and the baby Jesus, the light of the world holding them all together. Four very different people, all united by God’s Son.

So I wonder – as we read this story, as we think about this passage, where do we place ourselves?

As Mary or Joseph, nervously standing in the outer section of the temple, plucking up the courage to take the next steps in our journey with Jesus, to move closer to God?

As Anna, already trying to be as close as can be to God, always in the temple, in fasting and prayer, ready to set eyes on the promised Messiah and tell those we meet about Him?

As Simeon, long in the service of the Lord and continually on the lookout for signs of His kingdom, looking through the eyes of the Holy Spirit at all who we come into contact with and ready to offer blessing and praise to even the poorest and most different of strangers?

Now, there is a chance that some of us may feel more like those wandering around, visiting the temple as they felt compelled to do or out of a sense of duty but completely missing the Son of God in their midst. That’s my biggest fear – that I get so caught up trying to do things ‘properly’ that I miss the Spirit’s prompt to seize the opportunity to experience the living God in our midst. Kind of a Martha/Mary situation, if you will.

So I think the challenge for all of us is to study Simeon & Anna and try to emulate their devotion to the seeking of God’s Kingdom. Because there appears to be no great secret to what they did to spot Jesus amongst all that was going on. By spending time with God the Father & God the Holy Spirit, they recognised God the Son incarnate – Jesus Christ. By spending time in prayerful communion with this amazing mysterious Trinitarian God of ours, Three Persons yet One God, we will find ourselves more able than ever to see the light of God blazing in all who we meet – in the stranger, the outcast and the oppressed, and in the friend, neighbour or, dare I say it, enemy – or, at least, difficult challenging person – closer to home.

This closeness to God can be scary, painful even – as we heard in Malachi the Lord “is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” We may need to make changes in our own life, be reshaped by our creator, have some of the things that have no place in our walk with him or our dealings with others burned away or scrubbed clean.

But as we break bread and pour wine in remembrance of Jesus, we are reminded of the great hope His life, death and resurrection has brought us.

 “Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

We do not do any of this in our own strength, but fully assisted by He who knows us better than anyone, and who gave His life out of love for us. As I said at the start, sometimes – with the help of an expert – we have to look at something properly, listen to it carefully, to discover it is actually worth more than we realised.

By taking the time to see through the eyes of God’s all empowering, all-encompassing love poured out for each one of us, we can love as we are truly loved, value others as we ourselves are valued, and change the world one person at a time – even if the first person changed is ourselves.

Amen

Presentation Christ 2