All posts by Lesley Crawley

I am a priest in the Guildford Diocese, I am particularly interested in inclusivity for all in the church and clergy wellbeing. I became a Christian when I was 14 which was a shock because I previously scoffed at all faith, spirituality and religion. I have a bachelors degree and doctorate in Engineering. I have worked in Engineering Management, Research Science and have been a University Lecturer in Engineering. I am married and have three sons, four step-daughters and a grandson. My favourite place is Southwold and spend as much time as I can there, I enjoy walking and sitting in coffee shops, I also play Bridge. I love psychology, I am fascinated by people and what makes us thrive.

Sermon Mark 7:24-37

Mark 7:24-37

24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

A journalist once had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa and so he said “Mother

Philip Tirone kissing the hand of Mother Teresa
Philip Tirone kissing the hand of Mother Teresa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Teresa, you believe in God so I guess you must pray regularly”. “Yes, I do” came her reply. “So what do you say?” asked the Journalist. “Oh mostly I just listen”, she said. Thinking that he now had a great scoop, the very words of God to Mother Teresa he said “Ah, so what does God said to you?” “Oh mostly he just listens too”.

I would like to talk about listening to God, just a little bit, because I am drawn to the word “Ephphatha” that Jesus said – opening the deaf man’s ears – and I feel strongly that we too need to be able to hear God’s voice as a Parish so that we might walk in the right paths.

But I have to first unpack the first story because it is perhaps one of the most fascinating and challenging stories in the bible. It throws up questions of discrimination and questions of Jesus’s divinity and humanity.  So Jesus is possibly tired and fed up, he doesn’t want to be noticed, but a Gentile woman finds him and begs him to get rid of a demon in her daughter. I tend to think that “demon possession” in their terms was either something like epilepsy or mental illness.

So Jesus responds saying that the children should be fed first and it isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. What a horrible response – the woman would be well aware that the Jews referred to non-Jews as dogs. There is that famous prayer that Jewish men at the time used to pray – “Thank-you God that you didn’t make me a gentile, or a woman, or a dog”.

Admittedly, the word used in this text is “little dogs” rather than “dogs”, but I don’t think it makes it any better – it is dehumanising – I find it frightening when any group diminishes another, dehumanises them, because once we do that we can make them other than ourselves and treat them badly.

The woman responds that even the dogs eat the crumbs from the children’s table. And Jesus is impressed by this response and tells her that her child has been healed.

There are two possible interpretations of this story – the first is that Jesus is learning – that he listens to the woman and learns from her, and indeed this changes his ministry. The story is set between two mass feedings – and the symbolism and locations of these meals suggest that the first was for Jews and the second for Gentiles, the “dogs” suddenly finding themselves at the table and no longer eating the crumbs. This reading of the story would suggest that Jesus in his humanity had to learn to be Christ in his divinity. I quite like this idea – I am doubtful that when Jesus was a child he had the wisdom of Christ, I doubt that in his essays at school he wrote things like “God is love and all who live in love, live in God and God lives in them”. I doubt he said to his brothers “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called Children of God”. On this day Jesus learned something about equality between races that undid the racist teaching that he had learned before. Jesus then has a time of ministry to the Gentiles, the story marks a turning point.

The second interpretation is that Jesus is testing the woman and she comes through with flying colours. The woman is remarkably persistent – under the circumstances – she has been put down, insulted and she still keeps going. I dislike this because I find it insulting, the notion of Jesus testing her, especially in the context of the insult. But it does preserve the notion of Jesus being unchanging, emphasising the divinity of God.

How do you see Jesus? Do you see him learning? I think that is the reading that I take, in which case if it is ok for Jesus to be wrong sometimes, to learn from others, to be challenged and change his mind, then it is surely ok for us too.

Moving on to the story of the deaf man hearing, the reason I think we need to listen to God, particularly at this time, is because times are hard in the parish. Over the last few years the numbers of people who have attended our three churches has reduced probably from 134 per week to 87 per week. The amount of money we spend has stayed constant at about 45k per year, before paying our parish share, but our income has gone from 108k to 78k over the past four years. Alan will preach about this next week, but we the long and the short of it is we can’t afford to replace Carol, and the Vicarage will be let until the situation changes.

These numbers look depressing, and they need facing, but my belief is that God is with us, God will lead us through this. And in the meantime my hope is that we will come together more closely as a parish, we will need to work together, to help each other. My belief is that churches have seasons, and at the moment it is Winter, but Spring is coming. This belief has been strengthened by experiencing once again such a strong call to come here and it has been strengthened by finding such faithful people and the warmth of the welcome and friendship when we arrived.  I am convinced that together we will have the persistence of the Syrophoenician woman to work though this, the humility of Jesus to hear others and change where we need to, and I believe that Spring will come. I hope that you will also have that belief. Amen.

Sermon – Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23 (Lesley)

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

“This people honours me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’* For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

Since having four step-daughters I have realised that I am older than I thought I was. In so many ways. I guess many of you are thinking that I ain’t seen nothing yet. I have been sent round one of those emails about getting older and sadly some of them resonated:

1. You feel like the morning after but you haven’t been anywhere.

2. You look forward to a dull evening.

3. You turn off the light for economic reasons.

4. You regret all those mistakes you made resisting temptation.

5. You have too much room in the house and not enough room in the medicine cabinet.

6. You know all the answers, but nobody asks you the questions.

7. Your broad mind and your narrow waist have exchanged places.

And it is the last one of those that I want to address, because I think Jesus, in so many Bible passages, including the one we heard today, is telling us to stop being narrow-minded, and he particularly has a go at the Pharisees for their religious pride.

I have been challenged by this passage. Let me try and explain how:

I became a Christian in an Anglo-Catholic church and I loved being a server – being close to the priest, close to the Eucharist, close to the holy things of God.

It strikes me that the Eucharist is so holy that it affects other things – the Chalice and Paten (cup and plate) become holy, just by association with the bread and wine which become the body and blood of Christ. The altar (table) where this event happens becomes holy and people venerate the altar. Then the area of the church where the altar resides (the sanctuary) becomes a special holy of holies, and is separated by the altar rail, and only the priest and the servers (and the cleaner) pass across this barrier. And indeed the whole church becomes holy, and we talk in hushed voices within the building and we never swear in the house of God.

Once when I was a server I had set up incorrectly – I had mistaken one of the patens (that looked like a bowl) for the bowl where the priest washes his hands. When I came to pour the water over the priest’s hands he spotted my error and agonised for a moment – could he allow the water to pour off his fingers into the paten? No, he couldn’t. So I processed the paten back to the vestry and processed a bowl back to the altar.

But I wonder about all this – I understand it, I am part of it (I fret terribly if I am in a Communion service and I don’t see the left over bread and wine consumed (eaten and drunk) – I fear the worst and worry that they’ll pour the wine down the drain or put the bread in the bin.) But can this be right? I love the picture of the Last Supper where Jesus is about to hand round the bread and the wine and then says “Oh, we have a problem – none of you are confirmed!”

It is the most incredible honour and privilege to preside at the Eucharist – my theology is that we all make the bread and wine become for us the Body and Blood of Christ. One day I was praying – giving thanks that I was able to Preside at the Eucharist – to be amongst the Holy things of God and as clear as anything I felt in my heart God replying that the Holy things of God are the people.

And that is all people – all of us here and also the unwashed, the unchurched, the leper, the outcast, the children, the prostitutes. Jesus made this quite clear. The holy things are the people, and in particular the people that cause us religious folks to tut.

I fear that sometimes, like the Pharisees, we suffer from religious pride.

Alan and I read Joan Chittistler’s “Rule of Benedict” each day.

There is a section that he loves and I have hated, it goes like this:

The Hasidim tell a story that abbots and prioress, mothers and fathers, teachers and directors may understand best. Certainly Benedict did:

When in his sixtieth year after the death of the Kotzker, the Gerer accepted election as leader of the Kotzker Hasidim, the Rabbi said: “I should ask myself: ‘Why have I deserved to become the leader of thousands of good people?’ I know that I am not more learned or more pious than others. The only reason why I accept the appointment is because so many good and true people have proclaimed me to be their leader. We find that a cattle-breeder in Palestine during the days when the Temple stood was enjoined by our Torah (Lev 27:32) to drive newborn cattle or sheep into an enclosure in single file. When they went to the enclosure, they were all of the same station, but when over the tenth one the owner pronounced the words: ‘consecrated unto the Lord,’ it was set aside for holier purposes. In the same fashion when the Jews pronounce some to be holier than their fellows, they become in truth consecrated persons.”

I think for Alan he found the story helped him as a way of avoiding pride – a priest is no better than anyone else, just someone who has been set aside in this way. But I disagreed in the strongest terms – this suggests that a priest is set aside for holy things, as if everyone else is not – surely every Christian is holy, every Christian is set aside, every Christian has a calling – not just the priests…!!?

But what if we see the story in a different light? What if the one in ten (or more like one in a hundred) are the church goers? Are church goers any better than anyone else? Do they love their kids more? Do they worry more about ethics? Are they more loved by God? Does God really care whether people go to church? Perhaps this story is for all of us who go to church to avoid religious pride and say “Why do I find I have the privilege of being part of a church community? I am no more holy or godly than anyone else.”

In the Gospel story the Pharisees were outraged because the disciples were not obeying the religious laws and conventions – they were eating their food with unwashed hands. And Jesus responds by saying that we aren’t defiled by what goes into our bodies – unclean food isn’t the problem, what defiles us is what comes out – envy, slander and the like. Jesus is challenging our ethics – our understanding of right and wrong, and I believe that Jesus is much more interested in our ethics than our religious behaviour.

Ethics is simple – but people seem to want to make it complicated. There are three ways by which we make ethical decisions – we base them on rules, results or values (the posh names for these are ontological, deterministic or virtue ethics). My belief is that Jesus steers us towards Values – our behaviour is to come from loving God and loving our neighbours. Less important are rules and religious restrictions that trip people up, especially the outsiders, and again results are less important, for if our hears are pure, if we act without malice, then surely our actions will bear good fruit.

I have been challenged by this passage – how does my behaviour trip up those who want to find God? I hope and pray that for all of us we might reflect on this, for our calling is not to form a cosy club like the Pharisees, but to be a band of disciples, a bit uncouth perhaps, a bit broken, but full of the love of God and able to reach out and love our neighbours as ourselves.

Amen.

Sermon – Matthew 11:2-11(Lesley)

2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[a] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

John the Baptist baptizes Jesus. The artist Ad...
John the Baptist baptizes Jesus. The artist Adi Holzer created this handcolored etching The baptism in 1997. Today is his seventy-fifth birthday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,

    who will prepare your way before you.’[b]

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

A Vicar was fed up, waiting for the plumber to come. Eventually he sent him a note that simply said Matthew 11:3. When the plumber  looked it up he found the verse “Are you the one who is to come or look we for another”? So the plumber sent a note back, simply saying Isaiah 50:2a  “why did no one answer when I called”?

Sorry – couldn’t resist the dreadful joke.

John the Baptist was undoubtedly a great man of God – one of the greatest prophets that the Jews had seen.  In fact the New Testaments work hard to say that although John the Baptist was great, Jesus was greater, because there were many groups who followed John the Baptist as their leader even after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

John the Baptist had huge numbers of disciples, his teaching was transformative, he challenged materialism, challenged injustice, challenged the dreadful leaders of his time and was well respected by everyone for it. He ended up in jail, of course.

And jail is not an easy place to be. Not that I have personal experience of it, but in my rebellious teens I dated someone who had been in and out of jail, as had his friends. They spoke of it with horror. To do six weeks was unbearable, to do a long stretch such as a year was unthinkable. In jail they lost their freedom, their choices, their family, their girlfriends, their sense of self, their self-esteem, their ability to distance themselves from those who hurt them. They became completely disorientated and fearful.

So this passage does not show John the Baptist in his best light – Jesus is different than what he expected – are you the one or are we to look for another?

Perhaps it is the difference between his rather sober, austere outlook and rather angry God, who condemns things like adultery, compared with Jesus and his disciples having fun at parties and Jesus whose God forgives things like adultery. Jesus wasn’t doing religion in the same way as John.

And this is of course a huge challenge in the church today – people failing to understand others and the way they worship God – the various factions all too quickly throwing stones.

But the other thing to learn from this is how difficult it is not to lose our way when we are in situations that feel like prison. Of course they may not be actual prisons, we can get imprisoned in thought patterns, imprisoned in negative relationships, imprisoned by pain.

Being alone can impact on this too – have you heard the story of the man who went to his priest and asked why he was feeling so cold, so far from God. The priest simply got the fire tongs and took one of the coals out of the fire and put it on the hearth. The coal went from burning white hot to red hot to black. The priest then put it back in the fire. And within minutes it was on fire again. We need each other. The spiritual journey is not undertaken alone.

Jesus is very gentle with John – pointing out the evidence and then commending him. He does say that John is lacking something though, those who are least in the Kingdom of God are greater than John – perhaps he is the sense of the Holy Spirit at that time. If you compare John’s experience in prison with Peter’s experience when he was imprisoned then perhaps it is different – they sing hymns and an earthquake releases them, or Paul’s experience of ministering to his jailers. I don’t know.

But perhaps today is an opportunity to ask ourselves whether we have any prisons in our lives and whether we need to ask the Holy Spirit into them to transform them. I’m going to finish with that beautiful poem by Bonhoeffer, articulating his experience of imprisonment:

Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equably, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were

compressing my throat,

Yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!

Sermon – Luke 1:57-66,80 (Lesley)

Birth of St. John the Baptist, depicting Zecha...
Birth of St. John the Baptist, depicting Zechariah writing, “His name is John”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

So John the Baptist is born. They are going to name him after his dad, but his mum says “no – his name is John”. They don’t believe her and so his dad writes on a tablet that his name is John and they believed him.

 

How annoying is that?

 

I would venture that if you are not annoyed then you are probably male!

 

I moved house a little while back.. moved to a cottage in Wheatley. Before we moved my prime task was to make sure that my internet connection was going to be available on the day that I moved in. I did everything by internet – banking, chatting to my mates, working from home, finding out information… it was vital to me. So I rang up the week before we moved, and did everything they asked, and rang up on the day we moved, it should be all set. When we got there the phone didn’t work, and so we arranged for a service engineer to come in a couple of day’s time. He said that the line had been accidentally cut by the previous occupant being rather zealous with some shears on the bush around the door and he would put a new line in. He put a new box inside the cottage and took his cable outside but discovered that there was no way he could get it to the pole as there were trees in the way, and hence it needed to go under the road. I was dismayed… it had already been two days and there was going to be a further delay. He sensed my desperation, and booked the work in urgently and taped the coil of cable to the side of my cottage.

 

It was actually 115 days before we got our connection back and I won’t bore you with the whole story, but in the middle of this saga I rang up BT for the hundredth time to be told that the engineer had in fact connected the cable and there must be a problem with the exchange. I told him that the engineer had not connected the cable and it was still taped to the side of the cottage… at which point he said it wasn’t and the engineer had been and it would take a couple of days to trace the problem at the exchange. I then said that the engineer had not been because I could see with my own eyes the loose end of the cable. At this point the man on the end of the phone told me in a patronizing tone that I shouldn’t worry about it and they would soon sort it out at their end. In desperation I passed the phone to my husband who said ‘the cable is still coiled up and taped to the side of our cottage’, to which the man on the end of the phone replied ‘ok sir, I’ll send an engineer to sort it out’.

 

As a woman it is sometimes hard to be heard, sometimes hard to be treated as an equal. And I feel that, living in the 21st century in England… how much harder it is for women across the world and across the ages… how much harder it must have been for the women in the Bible.

 

I heard a talk given by John Bell at Greenbelt a couple of years ago…. He was asked to preach at Westminster abbey at Evening Prayer and was given a sheet with the readings on it. He thought it would be interesting to see what had been preached on at Morning Prayer. So he found that it was Exodus 1:1-12. This text is about how a King rose up that did not know Joseph and oppressed the people by making them work hard. John Bell’s text was Exodus 3:1-12, which is about the call of Moses. Now he was intrigued that so much of the text had been skipped over and looked at what the missing stories were.

 

There was the story of how the King had decided to get rid of all the Israelite boys, and he called in the midwives, two of which were called Shiphrah and Puah, and told them to kill the male children of the Israelite women. However, they disobeyed this command. So, when the King looked out of his window and saw all the little Israelite boys running around who should in fact be dead, he called them back in for an explanation. They said oh, the Israelite women aren’t like Egyptian women, you know. Oh no – Egyptian women make such a fuss, in labour for 28 hours, but not the Israelite ones, a huff and a puff and the baby is out before we can even get there. Guess what – God was so pleased with these two women who disobeyed the Pharoah and lied to him that he blessed them with lots of kids.

 

Then there was the story of how Moses was born and hidden until they could hide him no more, so his mum made a basket and put him in it, then his sister kept watch, and then the Pharoah’s daughter found him and took him in. Another story where three women are active in defying male authority and that gave rise to Moses, the saviour of the Israelites.

 

When John Bell got up to speak in Westminster Abbey he said that he was sorry to announce that between the 11.30 service of Morning Prayer and the 4.30 Evensong, five middle eastern women had gone missing in the abbey. This caused a certain level of blind panic amongst the security people.

 

I could go on about other women in the Bible – courageous women – dispelling the image that all women in the Bible are either virgins or whores… women who stood up to Kings, stood up for justice, defied husbands, ignored gender stereotypes and challenged Jesus. These are women that God did not denounce, but God rewarded them.

 

But I won’t. My question to us is “Why does God favour the weak and the despised?”

 

Why? After all natural selection favours the fittest. When we look for examples to follow, we look for the best – the most successful. What is it about the weak, the downtrodden, the poor, the women, the outcast. What is it about loving them that is good?

 

Obviously, I don’t know. I don’t know the mind of God. But instinctively in my spirit I know it is true that God reaches out to the broken-hearted, the broken reed – God will not snap, the guttering flame – God will not extinguish.

 

And I also think it is true that in loving that which is weak, loving the despised and broken outside of ourselves, we begin to love that which is weak and broken within ourselves. Jesus said that he came to give Life and Life in its fullness, the only way we can be fully alive is if we fully accept the whole of ourselves. When we live without fear or shame.

 

More than that, though, I believe that Life in all its fullness involves courage. And so many places where God commends the weak, it isn’t just that they were weak, it is they acted with courage in spite of their lowliness and weakness.

 

I have been told by a psychologist that there are two themes in the Bible, the first is God saying “I love you”, and for you and me, perhaps there are parts of us that are weak or despised that we find hard to accept are loved. Hence when Jesus loves the Leper or the adulteress we find it easier to accept that we are loved too.

 

The second theme is God saying “Grow up”. And whatever the situation is – an overbearing Pharaoh to stand up to, an unjust King, whoever, perhaps the weak in the Bible can show us that however overwhelming the problem, God is with us and we need to get on and face it.

 

I’m going to finish by reading some famous words by Dorothy Sayers. Perhaps we can use them to remind ourselves how we need to treat the weak in our society and indeed the weak in ourselves:

 

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man. There never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as He found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.

Pentecost Sermon 27/5/12 (Lesley)

Icon of the Pentecost
Icon of the Pentecost (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Holy Spirit can sound a bit scary:

 

Holy Spirit – Holy Ghost

 

One of my friend’s husbands called it the Holy Spook.

 

And also it can make us think about people who seem a bit weird:

 

In one church which was quite formal a woman who had just become a Christian, and she was really excited about what she’d experienced, about the Holy Spirit. And in the middle of the service she shouted out, `Hallelujah!’ And the churchwarden was standing at the back, and he came up to her and tapped her on the shoulder and said, `Madam, you mustn’t say that here!’ And she said, `But I’m so excited! I’ve got religion!’ So he said, `Well, you didn’t get it here, madam.’

 

It might be worth looking at the Bible to see instances of the HS.

 

The Holy Spirit was in creation – brooding over the waters… it is creative and brings change.

 

The Holy Spirit gives gifts – in Exodus one of the craftsmen was named as filled with the HS to perform all sorts of crafts – creative again.

 

Gideon was afraid until he was filled with the HS.

 

The HS enabled Samson to break free of his bonds.

 

In Joel it says that the Holy Spirit is for all people – all people – you, me, everyone.

It will result in old men dreaming dreams and young men having visions, and all of us, women too will have this fantastic sense of God within us and of God’s dreams and visions.

 

I was talking to someone this week who told me that she suddenly realised that she had faith, and with this realisation came this sense of God within her. Wow! It made me realise how exciting being a Christian is – sometimes we just take it for granted. We compared notes – I feel the HS in my heart, for her it was partly in her heart and in her gut too – this sense of God with us.

 

Remember the Holy Spirit is for us all – every one of us, those of us who are near and those who are far away, and it will cause something new to happen, something creative, something that frees us, something that gives us a vision for the future.

 

When we try to be Christians in our own strength then it is like a balloon filled with air –we have to hold it to keep it up. That is sometimes called muscular Christianity – we toil, we struggle, we do it in our own strength. But if we have a balloon filled with helium then it will rise up to heaven unless we keep it down. Perhaps it is our fears, or our sins or our circumstances that keep it down. Perhaps we need to be freed of some of this stuff.

 

I believe that the Holy Spirit come to give us freedom. The Bible tells us that it was for Freedom that Christ has set us free, no longer to be subject to a yoke of slavery. It seems to me that it is mostly the fears that stop us being free.

 

When I was preparing for this sermon I looked in a book that gives quotes or thoughts for each sermon and it used an essay about the film Shirley Valentine as the example for Pentecost. Which surprised me rather. If you haven’t seen the film then it is a gentle comedy of a woman, middle-aged wife and mother who is stuck. Stuck in her life. Rather unhappy. She goes to Greece, I think, on holiday with another woman who is her friend and meets a Greek called Costas and has a torrid affair. Then at the end of the film she calls for her husband and he comes out and walks past her on the beach. She calls to him and he doesn’t recognise her and she responds:

“I know. I used to be The Mother. I used to be The Wife. But now I’m Shirley Valentine again. Would you like to join me for a drink?”

The last line of the film is from him “Er… thanks”.

 

I was a bit non-plussed – I’m used to Christian books moralising at me. What was this story saying?

 

I think it is that the Holy Spirit frees us to be truly and wonderfully ourselves. And the real us is beautiful and happy and open and free and finding that person and letting her or him out of the cages that we put her or him in is part of the work of the Spirit.

 

Each night I use an Ignation style of prayer, and in this prayer the first part is Consciousness – becoming aware of God, then the second part is freedom – which still surprises me. God is not foreign to my freedom – God wants to set me free.

 

But the HS also is about sending us out. It is interesting that the HS enabled everyone to speak in languages that others could hear. It was like a reversal of the Tower of Babel curse, where people could no longer understand each other. The HS allows us to connect more deeply with others. Psychologists tell us that the most important thing for us all is to have connection. As Christians we might say love.

 

So where is the HS leading us as a church? It makes sense to try to see what the Spirit is doing and join in.

 

Unlike the vicar who enjoyed sitting at the bottom of his garden where a train line ran past. And when asked why he liked watching the trains he replied that it is the only thing that moved through his Parish without him pushing it.

 

It isn’t like that here – much is moving, it seems like loads of trains are happily moving and building up steam and it is nothing to do with me or Alan – we didn’t touch them!

 

Let us watch and pray and asked to be filled and freed and join in with what God is doing to serve those who we live alongside.

 

Amen

 

 

Baptism Sermon – 22/4/12 (Lesley)

Well today we are welcoming Jesse to the Church or more specifically to the Church of England, but what does that mean?

I heard that there was a very good programme on the telly called “Midwives” or something like that… where a nurse inadvertently applied for a job at a hospital run by nuns. At the interview she was asked the question whether she had a faith, and she replied “No, I’m Church of England”.

We might think that is funny but when I was a teenager I asked my dad whether he was a Christian, to which he replied “well I’m not Muslim, am I?”

Mmm… I think there is more to being a Christian than that. I think there is even more to being a member of the Church of England than that!

We don’t become Christians by an accident of birth – it is a process of new birth. Jesus says that we become Christians by being born of the Spirit and Water. And I don’t think he was talking about having a Scotch on the rocks, as uplifting as that might be!

We become Christians by something we do – which is turning our hearts and minds to God,

Something that God does – which is giving us the Holy Spirit and Something that the Church does – which is Baptism.

So today we are baptising Jesse and we hope and pray that when he is old enough he will find God and decide to turn to God. He will then have the opportunity to be Confirmed and the Bishop will pray for him to receive the Holy Spirit.

For some people here there has never been a time when they didn’t know God in their lives through the Holy Spirit. For others, like me, the decision came later. I was an atheist, and quite an ardent atheist before I stumbled upon the church, and little by little it seemed to make sense, until the day when I had to admit to myself and to God that I believed in God. This wasn’t insignificant for me – it was a massive change in my worldview and also, I believed that if there is a God with a plan for my life then I should seek that God with all my mind, heart and soul…. And look where I ended up!

There are many metaphors in the Bible for the Church and I thought it might be helpful on this special day when we are welcoming a new member into the church to think about these Metaphors.

The first is that we are a Temple made of Living Stones. This is the only reference to a building in the New Testament – We are the Temple – us. Church doesn’t mean a cold building with uncomfortable pews and stained glass windows. Church is the people inside. Talking about uncomfortable pews – have you heard the quote by Abraham Lincoln where he said that if all the people who fell asleep in churches on a Sunday were laid end to end they would be a lot more comfortable?

But it is more exciting than that – we are living stones and when we come together we make a Holy Temple – a place perhaps where we can sense the presence of God.

Another metaphor for the church is that it is the bride of Christ – becoming part of the church is like being married to Christ. We seek to Love Christ, to walk alongside Christ. St. Augustine prayed, `You have made us for yourself, and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.’ Finding the community of the church where together we express our love and joy in Christ is something that answered a need in me – people talk about having a God-shaped hole, and for me I found that becoming fully part of the Church answered my restless heart. It was a falling in love for me, a marriage, when I worship in church it is a desire to tell God how I feel.

The final metaphor for the church is the Body of Christ, and I think this is favourite for many of us. Each one of us has gifts and skills that we bring to the church, and today Jesse is part of this family, part of this body. Together we aim to be Christ to each other and Christ to the world.

I have found the church to be the place for authentic and profound relationships and the place where people who need healing, love, forgiveness can find it.

I’ll finish by quoting Teresa of Avila who lived way back in the sixteenth century:

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.

Let us together be the Body of Christ. Amen

Sermon – John 20.19-31 (Lesley)

The Resurrection of Christ
The Resurrection of Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

19When 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So 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.”

 26A 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.” 27Then 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.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But 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.

 

There is a great deal going on in this reading:

–          Jesus says “as the Father sends me so I send you”

–          He breathes on the disciples and says “receive the Holy Spirit”

–          There is the rather peculiar bit about forgiving sins

–          There is the lovely story of Thomas

–          John reveals the reason for writing the Gospel – that through believing you may have life.

I can’t focus on all of these things and so I will focus on the words “As the father sends me, so I send you”

As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus is sending us…

I once heard a sermon from Stephen Cottrell, who was at the time newly the Bishop of Reading, now the Bishop of Chelmsford and he said that these words troubled him…

As the Father sends me, so I send you.

So he got out all his commentaries and he translated back from the original Greek and he looked for all the possible shades of meaning that this verse may have, and in the end, after much work, he concluded that what the verse actually means is…

As the Father sends me, so I send you.

It is shocking. God sent Jesus to minister to His creation, to proclaim the Good News, to heal the sick, bind up the brokenhearted. God the Father sent Jesus – the Messiah, some sort of superhero… and as the Father sent him so Jesus sends us. Little old us. And not some of us, not just the courageous and the articulate and the brainy and the holy ones…. ALL OF US.

No wonder people run away from ordination. Almost every ordained person I know ran from God for as long as they could. For Alan it was six months and then he made the mistake of going to a Vocations Day to prove that he wasn’t called to be a priest. For me it was a year, for a friend I know at the moment it has been two years. The reason we run is because we know that if we say “yes” then we have to face the fact that.

As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us.

But, of course, our baptism is our ordination. For all of us. Or perhaps we might say that our Confirmation is our ordination.

In this text is the model for our confirmation

For those of us who have been confirmed, the bishop says:

God has called you by name and made you his own.

He then lays his hand of the head of each saying:

Confirm, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit.

God calls us and God sends us. It is interesting that we tend to focus more on our “calling” than our “sending”, and yet the Bible is full of the question “who shall I send?” not “who shall I call?”

The deeper we go into the meaning of God’s call for us, the more we find that God is sending us – God called Moses at the burning bush then sent him to set his people free.  God called Isaiah in the vision in the temple and then sent him to be a prophet to his people. God calls us at our baptism and sends us at our confirmation. The sending isn’t optional – it is part and parcel of being a Christian. When we baptise children it is on the understanding that they should be confirmed when they can declare the faith to be their own. The coming of age is a symbol of each of us accepting our sending.

A psychologist priest I know reckons that the Bible has two messages for us.

The first is “I am with you”, the second is “grow up”.

God has called us by name and also God sends us. But we are equipped by the Power of the Holy Spirit and we are equipped by the fellowship and love that we have for each other.

Furthermore we are an Easter People, a group who are formed by the Resurrection. Richard Rohr says:

“To believe in the Resurrection means to cross limits and transcend boundaries. Because of the promise of the Resurrection of Jesus we realistically can believe that tomorrow can be better than today. We are not bound by any past. There is a future that is created by God, and much bigger than our own efforts.

We should not just believe in some kind of survival or immortality or just “life after death”—but Resurrection, an utterly new creation, a transformation into Love that is promised as the final chapter of all history.”

But you will notice that Jesus’ resurrection body carries the scars of his crucifixion. As we all carry scars, I’m sure. Life becomes ever more complex and perplexing, to borrow two words from our Lent book. We end up with scars. These scars don’t evaporate, even in the light of the resurrection. But perhaps they do have their uses. Macabre as is sounds, they helped Thomas, and Jesus offered him exactly what he wanted – to put his hand in his nail marks and in his side. Perhaps, believing in the resurrection, even our scars become part of our sending.

I guess it is a lack of trust in God, this running away from the sending – if we give in to this Hound of Heaven who is gently pursuing us then what will happen? It reminds me of that story of a man who fell off a cliff and half way down he managed to grab hold of a branch. Suspended half way down he called up “is there anybody there?”

“yes” boomed the reply, “it is God, let go and I will catch you”

The man thought for a moment “is there anybody else there?”

The truth is that it is by accepting our sending that we find life in all its fullness. Accepting it without complaining, accepting it without grumbling, accepting it as God’s grace to us. Too often we moan that there are too few of us, or two few doing all the jobs, or complaining that people don’t see things the same way as we do. In these circumstances, if our church life feels like a burden then perhaps we haven’t determined our sending. Once we have stopped running away, stopped fearing that we will be taken, blessed, broken and given to others, then we wonder why we ran in the first place.

As the father sends me… sends me, takes me, blesses me, breaks me, gives me… as the Father sends me, so I send you.

I will finish with a story from a book called “Cutting for Stone” where a boy in an orphanage is talking to his Matron. She tells him that his must play the Gloria. He responds by saying:

“But, Matron, I can’t dream of playing Bach, the ‘Gloria’ . . . ,” He’d never played a string or wind instrument. I couldn’t read music.

“No, not Bach’s ‘Gloria.’ Yours! Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.”

I pray that individually and together we all find our Gloria. Amen.

Sermon – John 12:20-33 (Jennifer)

Corcovado jesus
Corcovado jesus (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Lent 5 2012 St.John’s

Jeremiah 31.31-34       Hebrews 5.5-10     John 12.20-33

When I first heard that my mother had been diagnosed with bowel cancer I was distraught.

That night, in terrible distress I curled up in bed in a tight ball sobbing

‘Oh no not my Mum’

‘This can’t happen to my Mum’

‘Oh God no!’

The universal human cry when something terrible is happening!

Jesus in his humanity was not exempt from this desolation.

In today’s reading from John’s gospel, we’re told that Jesus was troubled in his soul.

– “Father, save me from this hour”

Many people seem to work on the assumption that if you worship and follow God, he will make sure nothing bad happens to you.

Then they are disappointed and ‘loose their faith’.

Because it just doesn’t work like that.

Life is just not like that.

And Christianity has never been an insurance policy.

God sends the rain and the sun on the good and the bad alike.

We all have good times in life and we all have bad times in life.

What God does give Christians, is the assurance that he knows what we’re going through because he has experienced it himself.

When God himself was on earth in the person of Jesus, he experienced all our emotions from the very best to very worst.

But hang on a minute – when we are in the depths of suffering ourselves

and we gaze on the suffering of Our Lord Jesus

Is it really so comforting to know that Jesus went through exactly the same routine.

“God, this is awful, please stop this happening to me,” Jesus prayed.

But it didn’t stop, and the process continued with worse pain for Jesus.

In the garden of Gethsemane on the night before he died he spent the whole night in prayer,

but still it wasn’t over for him

and he had to endure the physical agony of crucifixion

and the emotional and spiritual agony of believing that God himself had deserted him.

How can the God of Love,

God the Father,

allow this to happen to His Beloved Son?

And if God does not even seem to answer Jesus’ prayer what chance do we stand of being saved from our agony?

Oh God no!

Oh God why!

The most intriguing verse in today’s reading from Hebrews is verse 7, where the author says,

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

Was he heard?

On the cross Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And then he died.

So how was he heard by the one who was able to save him from death?

He wasn’t saved from death.

He died just as we all die

and the appalling circumstances of his death make it look as though the reverse is true,

that he wasn’t heard no matter how much he wept and prayed and no matter how reverent his submission.

When somebody is very ill,

one of the problems with praying for healing is that they so often don’t appear to be heard,

because the person dies.

That can leave those who pray feeling very guilty

or very insecure,

as though their prayers weren’t good enough

or they didn’t have enough faith.

But this was exactly what happened to Jesus.

He prayed for life and he died.

Yet the author of Hebrews sees this as “he prayed to the one who was able to save him from death,

and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

Perhaps the answer is that we can’t take the cross in isolation.

It can be understood in part if it stands alone,

for we all go through times of mini-crucifixion when awful things happen in our lives and in which we experience horror and agony and darkness and often the absence of God.

At such times we can identify with Jesus and face our own mini-crucifixion armed with the knowledge that Jesus has been there before us and knows how it feels.

But to look at the cross in its entirety we must include the resurrection.

This is the point of view of the author of Hebrews.

He sees Jesus as very much alive in a new, wonderful, radiant sort of life in some different dimension beyond death.

And this is the message which God is so anxious we should hear.

God is so anxious that we should hear it that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Just think – when we pray to God in the agony of despair

‘Why don’t you do something to end this!’

‘Why does it have to be like this?’

Just think – it was at that moment of supreme agony

Up there on the cross

That God in His Son is saving the world!

This is how he ‘does something’

24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit  –  explains St.John.

Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’

The exact nature of this salvation remains a life long mystery

What we do know is that we do die in this life, many times.

We all have mini-deaths or mini-crucifixions because that’s the nature of human life.

We have good times and we have bad times, just as Jesus had good times and bad times.

Our bodies eventually die, never to be used on this earth again, just as Jesus’ body eventually died and was never used on this earth again.

But Jesus hung in there, facing the bad times and refusing to give up on love or forgiveness,

and as a result Jesus was seen again after death,

in a new body which was rarely recognised even by his closest friends

and which was healed and fit and well.

What we call “death” was but a gateway into a new and different and wonderful life.

We frequently experience this on this earth.

Things go horribly and appallingly wrong and it feels like the end of everything we hold dear,

but eventually…….

now let’s not be naïve about this

for some the suffering does go on and on until it overwhelms them – poor souls! – pray that they find consolation on the other side of death

But usually if we hang in there,

things get better and new and different doorways open into a new kind of life

which is often even better than the former life.

The same thing happens after our final death in this life.

A new doorway opens and we move into a new and different and wonderful life.

So perhaps the writer of Hebrews was right after all.

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

And God promises the same for all of us.

Sermon on Mark 8:31-38 (Lesley)

Mark 8.31-38dali_christ_of_st_john

31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

So we heard from the Roman’s passage Paul’s big message – you can be righteous, or right with God through faith.

I looked back to when I preached on this passage six years ago and at that time I was actually studying theology, indeed I was studying Paul, so that was quite helpful because I clearly seemed to know what Paul was on about at the time!

Although there was a line in the sermon that said that we skipped Romans 4 because our lecturer said it was too difficult for us to understand!

Anyway, the thing that Paul was so fabulously excited about was that we could be right with God through faith… this was his conversion experience…. He had been a Pharisee, and not just any Pharisee, but one that had zealously been persecuting Christians and having them stoned…. And the reason for that was that he thought that everyone, every Jew, had to be obeying the Law perfectly in order for them to be right with God. In order for God to bless Israel, in order for God to release Israel from captivity to the Romans, everyone had to follow every law in the utmost detail. And they weren’t doing it. Especially the Christians, they were being heretical proclaiming a man, this man Jesus to be God.

So you can imagine the migraine this gave poor old Saul as he was, trying to control EVERYONE. It is hard enough to control ourselves…. I have certainly caved in on some of my Lenten disciplines already and they are truly piffling compared the Jewish Laws.

And then Paul realised, and then Paul found the penny dropping, that we could be made right though FAITH. And what a relief that was.

So what is faith? For Paul it meant surrender to God. Giving in to God. Stopping trying to control, stopping trying to have things our way, stopping trying to understand, and falling into the loving arms of God. Stepping out perhaps

(Indiana Jones video)

Sometimes, in Bibles it is translated as “to believe” because we can’t say “to faith” in English like you can say it in Greek, but to believe is such a poor translation. It suggests intellectual assent rather than giving your whole body and soul to God. And anyway, I think sometimes we surrender to God even though in our mind we can’t believe, we “faith” anyway.

Hence, central to our faith is the image of Baptism – trusting others as they dunk you under the water, giving in, surrendering, submitting to God. And for Paul, he felt we had to die to the old ways, die to the Law and be resurrected as new people, people who surrendered to God.

In the Gospel we also hear of a similar idea – Jesus says we have to take up our cross and follow Jesus. It is a sort of surrender, but I don’t think it necessarily means that our lives will be nasty and painful… not at all. I think that the cross is a symbol of release of burdens.

Like the bit in the Pilgrim’s progress where Christian loses his burden:

Up this way, therefore, did burdened CHRISTIAN run; but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.

He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as CHRISTIAN came up to the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble; and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.

Then was CHRISTIAN glad and lightsome, and said, with a merry heart,

“He hath given me rest by his sorrow,
And life by his death.”

My gran had a big, beautiful, illustrated version of the Pilgrim’s Progress, and I did once try to read it because my Gran told me to. Now I look at it again it is no wonder that I couldn’t – the language was so alien to me, but so was the content – I had no understanding of faith.

However, years later, I too had an experience similar to that of Christian. I was at Uni when I heard an evangelistic talk where the preacher was thinking about the words Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished”. I was convinced it wasn’t for me and so I let my guard down, and was enthusiastically agreeing with the speaker in my heart hoping that it would enable others to understand the truth of God’s love for them. The speaker was saying…

‘..when Jesus died on the cross he said the words ‘it is finished’. These words were often used on grocery bills when people paid their tab. In other words Jesus said ‘it is paid for in full’. Now, imagine all of your sins listed like a grocery bill. All your sins, the ones that you feel are forgivable and the ones that you are so ashamed of, all of them.’

I was so absorbed in what the speaker was saying that I did as I was told and listed all the things I was ashamed of, even the unmentionable, unforgivable ones.

The speaker continued..

‘..now, imagine Jesus stamping the bill with a seal and on the seal are the words ‘paid for in full’.

I could see all my sins listed, and a big red wax seal… paid for in full. I was amazed and tearful; I suddenly felt that Jesus’ death had mysteriously paid for all my sins. I had become crippled by shame and in those moments I felt able to walk again.

Of course, it needed surrender, it needed faith, but somehow, by doing so I gained a new life, I gained a sense of being right with God. The clouds cleared and I felt like I was dancing in the sunshine.

I pray that this Lent all of us might experience this realisation that Paul was so excited about, that surrendering to God mysteriously brings us close to God. Amen

Ash Wednesday Sermon (Lesley) John 1:1-8

Deutsch: Christus im Hause des Pharisäers, Jac...
Image via Wikipedia

John 8:1-11
but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about sin, in preparation for this sermon…. And a memory came back to me that characterises sin for me. I was eighteen and an engineering apprentice. We had to learn how to weld and used various techniques, and it all went pretty smoothly, but the final type of welding required very, very high electric currents. I was with my friend Audrey and we were in a booth that had a metal table and a metal cage around us. The idea being that the welding stick had a high voltage that was earthed when it touched anything metal. So we were wearing protective clothing with a visor that was so dark that you could literally see nothing – it was pitch black and I stood in the total blackness in the booth waiting for her to begin welding. I did see one flash on the table and then after that there were flashes of light from over my head, to the right, to the left, back on the table, then over in another corner… all over the place – accompanied by crashing and banging. I was terrified. I couldn’t run because I couldn’t see and I couldn’t take the visor off because of the flashing arcs of light that would blind me. When Audrey had finally stopped she told me what had happened. She had accidentally welded the welding stick to the specimen, and then she was trying to shake it free, in the process she managed to crash it into the cage in various places and everywhere it made contact with the metal it earthed and so the arcing started.

Why is this like sin? Well because I think what happens to me, and sometimes to others, is we have some issue that is perhaps unseen, a bit like getting the welding stick stuck to the specimen. Let’s say that issue is crushing unworthiness, or fear of the future, or a bad marriage, or a deep grief, or perhaps a desperate shame. But you don’t see any of that, you don’t know about it because it is hidden so deeply. What you perhaps see is me grumpy with my kids, super sensitive about certain things, you see me overworking, or eating too much, or you see me sullen in meetings… All these things are like sparks flying all over the place, and sometimes these are the things that we focus on as sins… but they aren’t ever going to be solved because they aren’t the real problem. The real problem is what happened in the darkness, the wrong thing got welded..!

Turning to the passage, I have struggled more and more with it as the years have gone on. I’ll try to explain why.
For a start Jewish Law says that people can only be accused of adultery if they were caught actually in the act. The law also said that both parties were guilty. So why is only the woman accused of it. Where is the man? It isn’t as if he wasn’t there when the Pharisees turned up. Why did he get away Scot free? Well presumably because being a man he was worth more than her. But what sort of betrayal is this? Betrayal of justice, betrayal of love….?

Or is it worse than this. Is this whole thing a set-up? After all it is only the Pharisees who accuse her… and it seems very convenient that a bunch of Pharisees catch a woman in the very act of adultery in close proximity to where Jesus is teaching so that they can publicly test him and force him to choose between obedience to the Law and the mercy that characterises him. Perhaps she was forced to commit adultery?

Then she was brought before Jesus. The text tells us that Jesus was sitting down and that she was forced to stand. My guess is that as they brought her straight from the act that she was naked, which is why Jesus mostly seems to be leaning forward, bowing his head, drawing in the sandy soil and protecting her modesty.

It is a horrible scene of betrayal and humiliation, all with the aim of catching Jesus out. As a woman and as a priest I have heard horrific stories of abuse and humiliation such that I don’t think I can be shocked any more. For me, these stories wash over my consciousness as I read this story and I am transfixed and appalled by the scene that has developed.

Perhaps you too know stories of shame and humiliation. I confess that as I read this story I have a growing anger towards the Pharisees. We don’t know whether the woman has transgressed in this way or not. But what about the sins of the Pharisees? What about the way they let injustice rule and they let the man go? What about the way they are publicly humiliating this woman just so they can continue their vendetta against Jesus? If they were concerned about her sin and thought Jesus could help then why not let her be clothed and go to him privately? Anger begins to burn in me.

But of course I am doing exactly the same thing as the Pharisees. They are drawing tighter and tighter circles of sinfulness around her and I am doing the same to them.

Jesus is different. He drew an expanded circle of sinfulness that included everyone present and then an even more expansive circle of forgiveness in the words “Neither do I condemn you”.

Once we judge someone then it is difficult to hear God over the clamour of our own ego. Once we have judged then it is difficult to change our minds without losing face. We are called to be open and expansive, not to judge, that we might be able to discern God in amongst our everyday lives. To do this we need a soul that is at peace, not one that is awash with judgement, anger and pride.

But two questions remain for me:

“Is the woman really guilty?” I find myself asking – I’m still struggling to get away from this judging mentality. Jesus said “Go and sin no more” – does he think she was caught doing something wrong? And how could he possibly know if he was clothed in the same humanity that we have, how could he know without asking more questions?

Well, the truth is of course that all of us sin, including her. All of us fall short, and we flail around creating sparks here and there… perhaps some of us have deeper hurts that drive these things and we need to find the courage to deal with them.

I heard a story about a woman who said to her Orthodox priest that she thought confession was useless for her – she didn’t do all those disgusting things that other people do. The priest replied that she should tell this to her husband and children and come back in the morning to tell the priest her decision on whether she wanted to confess. In the morning she came back a different person… and with a very long list.

It is easy to let pride get in the way of our relationship with God. This is why in every mosque, when they do those beautiful mosaics, they always have some flaw in the pattern somewhere – to remind them of their humanness, their brokenness, their incompleteness.

My second question is why the woman remains there once all her accusers have gone. Jesus is sitting down, the woman is standing there, possibly naked…. the text says that everyone goes – including the disciples and all the people who Jesus was teaching. They all slip away and the woman is alone with Jesus. What has happened to her? At the beginning of the story she was dragged along and forced to stand, now she is there voluntarily.

Somehow, in all her nakedness and vulnerability, being with Jesus is safe. Knowing that she was a sinner and an accused woman, she still remains.

I find this surprising, and then I wonder why.

I wonder whether I can be naked before God, real and vulnerable.

Is that an issue for all of us… and if so why?

I wonder whether this Lent we can hear the words of Jesus “Go and sin no more” but also hear the words “neither do I condemn you”..?