Category Archives: Luke’s Gospel

Division and peacemaking

A sermon preached at St Mark’s on August 18 on the text Luke 12: 49-56.

The text from the Gospel today is a tough one. It is about Jesus saying he came to bring division to the world. (You can read it here). I gather that far more learned people than I am have decided today to preach on one of the other readings in the lectionary but at St Mark’s we don’t read these, so I have to deal with the Gospel.

Mind you, the other readings (Isaiah 5: 1-7; Hebrews 11: 29-12: 2) aren’t that easy, because they talk of some of the less pleasant things God is portrayed as doing – eg drowning the Egyptians – and this is something that we have to deal with.

And here in this passage, what is going on? Is Jesus talking about his death, about the end times, about strife within the community? Fire is something that is used in the Bible to purify and is painful and associated with a vengeful God.

And what about saying that he had come to bring division? I thought he was the Prince of Peace. After all he said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’.

Or was he talking about what inevitably happened because of the radical, anti-establishment nature of the Gospel? Jesus was a divisive character then and continues to be. Those following him at the time would have been seen as radicals and no doubt this divided families, as it still does in some places. And a gospel which said that the outcast was worthy, that the poor should inherit the earth – was this upturning of values the fire he was talking about? It was obviously going to divide people.

And if Jesus inevitably divides people, what are we meant to do about it? Do we just say, oh, that is OK, Jesus said there would be division so I am right to be divided against my friend, neighbour etc? That seems like a lazy, literal interpretation of the text.

I’ve been reading various interpretations of the text and they have been useful but also exposed something at the root of why we have the problem of division –  ie there are lots of interpretations and I, like most of us, have leaned generally towards the ones I agree with and have discounted the others. That interpretation suits me, that one doesn’t so I will go with the first and not the second. Or I can’t fit that one into my narrative so I will ignore it. It doesn’t fit with the conclusions I have already reached.

The issue of my liking some interpretations and not others, the issue of not even considering some interpretations, is fundamental to the issue of division which he talks about and is horribly resonant with society today. I don’t know when there was last such a divided country. The same goes for America. And as I look at people who support opposite views to mine I find myself thinking – how could you? How can you be so: ignorant, selfish, blind etc etc? And they no doubt look at me and say much the same. That sort of attitude and division is not going to bring healing to the world.

Think for a moment about something you are convinced you are right about. What do you feel about the people who disagree with you?

The same goes for church. This was really underlined recently for me when I went to the first Surrey Pride and spent some of my time arguing against a group of men and women from an organisation whose main aim appears to be to challenge LGBTI+ people, and persuade them to turn away from their sexual identities. I believe passionately in a God who accepts people just as they are. This group were made to leave the Pride event – one of the ambulance staff there said that one young person had had a panic attack after they had spoken to this group – but stood outside to talk to people there with the police keeping a watchful eye. The police were fantastic and stood close while I spoke, ready to intervene if they were concerned for anyone’s safety.

Neither the group nor I was going to persuade or even listen to the other. We both knew we were right. But where did that leave us? Probably both sides feeling self-righteous and cross.

So what do we do about these divisions?

My personal response to division has usually been to try to pour oil on troubled water, try to keep everyone happy. Division is bad, right? OK I didn’t try that at Pride but that was unusual. Usually I have tried to be a peacekeeper.

But maybe peacekeeping isn’t the way forward. If we just try to keep the peace then we are less likely to deal with the issues that are causing the division in the first place. We will ignore those issues and they will fester and cause greater issues and greater divisions. Maybe that is one of the things we have been doing in this country which has led to such division now. If one lot of people have felt left behind and another happy with the status quo, maybe that was inevitably going to lead to the divisions we have over Brexit, or inevitably going to lead to Donald Trump.

I think there has been another factor which has been at play here too, encouraging the rise of the right wing, something which has exacerbated the divisions. As a more liberal society has emerged there has been a push back by those whose position and power is threatened – chiefly the mainly white patriarchy.

So we have divisions and if peacekeeping isn’t the way to solve them, what is? Maybe looking at what causes division would help us grow and change for the better. Maybe this is one of the things Jesus meant when he talked about division and about reading the signs. He was saying that there will be division because his way is challenging to the status quo, challenging to the powerful, challenging to the haves, and it is right that it is challenging and divisive, because if it isn’t society will never grow and change and follow his way.

So maybe we shouldn’t be peacekeepers but something more proactive – peacemakers. Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ not blessed are the peacekeepers. Peacemakers are those who look at both sides, see both sides as having rights and responsibilities, offer both sides a way forward. Peacemakers at their best are those who try to look at the world through the eyes of both sides.

But, says the follower of Jesus, my side is obviously right. I am obviously right. My understanding of what Jesus wants is obviously right.

How do we know our interpretation is right? Maybe a little humility would be good here, and maybe a little bit of trying to listen, to each other and to God. I have become more and more convinced that prayer is a way forward (even though I am not good at practising what I preach!). If we pray, try to listen to God as well as each other, then maybe we will change within. Maybe that is the fire that Jesus meant – a fire within us which changes us.

Stella Wiseman

Picture by Sunyu.

 

Where is God in the storm?

The Gospel reading on February 24 was from Luke 8, 22-25. At St Mark’s that day, Lesley Shatwell preached.

The Gospel passage:

‘One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”’

Lesley’s sermon:

Jesus said to them: “Where is your faith?”

That’s a good question. And what is faith anyway?

It’s easy to believe something if you can see it to be true. The disciples witnessed how Jesus was able to calm the storm, so they came to believe.

But is that the same as faith? I don’t think it is.

Faith is about knowing. But it’s about truly knowing something even though you can’t explain it to anyone else. It’s not something we can measure. “I wish I had your faith … etc”

It’s not something we can force in ourselves and it is something which we can lose just at that very moment when it could be useful.

Just at that moment when you are all at sea in a storm.

Loss of faith doesn’t have to be so dramatic though.

The theologian Thomas Merton talks eloquently about how people can lose faith very easily. In summary he says: ‘People seem to lose their faith as they grow more mature. To start with, it’s easy, believe this and you do. But then the comfortable reassurance you get stops working. And then, well well, God’s not looking after me, why should I have faith in him? What’s God ever done for me? I don’t believe he exists, he’s never around when I need him.’

Merton goes on to say: ‘Don’t put faith in “sunshine” Christians, who promise a quick fix. You may have to find God alone. Faith is personal, nobody else can do it for you.’

I think a lot of us are looking for a quick fix. Something which will make us feel safe and secure, loved and well cared for.

And perhaps it seems that God offers this. All will be well, if I just had a bit more faith in God … and perhaps it would, I’m certainly not going to dismiss people’s faith, but at the risk of being less than a “sunshine” Christian, I can’t offer it to you that today. That’s a quick fix.

It doesn’t take into account that plain fact that none of us can force ourselves to believe in God.

I can look with wonder and a fair dollop of jealousy at people whose faith can move mountains, and yes, I probably envy them, but it is not my experience of being Christian. There are some days when I wake up and I know, without a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is my saviour. That wonderful aria from Messiah, “I know that my redeemer liveth …” is playing like a constant companion in my mind and the joy of the Holy Spirit runs right through me.

Then I catch a glimpse of the outrider clouds of a massive storm and all those wretched doubts creep in.

Life is tough. Lots of people have things far more tough in life than I do, but, dear Lord, this is me and there are times it feels as though I am totally alone and lost in a storm at sea. I long for Jesus to wake up and make everything better for me. But it hasn’t happened yet.

But before I wallow too much in the awfulness of everything, I must be honest: there are good times along with the bad times.

There are times when I love my life, I’m full of delight with everything and everyone around me. Times when life can get no better. And then it is tempting to think, “Oh, this is all down to me, to my careful planning, everything is working out well and I’m in charge.”

Wrong! God’s in charge.

It’s God’s doing, even though it may seem as though God is asleep and letting me get on with my life, I have to acknowledge that my joy is not entirely down to me.

God has given me a wonderful day and it is at times like that when I sometimes remember to give thanks and show my gratitude.

Often I don’t, because I’m human and I accept the good times which come to me as though I have a right to them.

It’s different though when things go wrong. Have you ever had days when you wake up with a feeling of dread as to what is going to happen now you have come out of the dreamland? Have you ever had days when everything hurts, everyone you meet seems to rub you up the wrong way so it would have been better if you had avoided people?

Yes, people, they are the problem; no, it’s my tummy, I shouldn’t have eaten that great big dinner last night; oh my back aches; no, it’s that awful meeting I’m going to have with my boss – yes, I knew it, everybody else is the problem. Always someone else’s fault.

Probably God’s fault. Everybody else is happy and well and I’m not.

God this isn’t fair, why have you forsaken me?

What have I done wrong? Wake up God!

It’s true, isn’t it?

We call on God a great deal more to sort out our problems than we do to give thanks and praise. It’s when disasters happen that we wonder where God is and why he has abandoned us.

Where was God during the tsunami? Where was God when evil people get into power? Why didn’t God stop that child from being hurt? Yes, God – where are you? Why are you asleep in the back of our boat as we are sailing head-on into a storm?

Wake up Jesus! We need you here now.

In our reading today, we hear about experienced fishermen who made their living going out in boats.

And they were terrified, they thought they were going to die. They were out of their depth as the gale swept down on them and the waters poured into their boat. All their own effort and skill couldn’t save them.

All the while, there is one person, their friend who sleeps through it all. He is with them though. He’s not left them. He’s in the boat with them.

At the point in the gospel where this passage occurs, they are just learning who Jesus is. They need more reassurance before their faith is strong enough to realise that because Jesus is with them in the boat, whatever happens, they are safe in the loving care of God.

The winds and waters obey Jesus, for God created all things. By calming the storm and saving their physical lives, Jesus is not forcing them to have faith, he is showing them again that he is with them.

In our lives there are plenty of storms when it seems that God is asleep and not aware of our troubles. Despite what it feels like, that’s not so, for God is always with us – as the final words Jesus says according to the Gospel of Matthew: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”.

Perhaps he is asleep but I don’t happen to think so. And anyway, what I do know is that Jesus is most definitely in the boat with us.

 

Picture: Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee by Rembrandt.

Mary, faith and holding on

When I was nine years old, I remember having a discussion with my friend, Cherry, at school about how babies were made. She thought boys had something to do with it. I asked my mum and dad about it after school that day and they sat me down in our dining room and told me the biological facts of human reproduction. I burst into tears. It was all a bit too much for me that day, even though, to this day, I remain grateful to my late parents for their courage, honesty and clarity in telling me the Facts of Life.

My mum, Jean, was told nothing at all on this subject by her parents. When she was nine years old and her younger sister, Margaret, was born, my mum looked in the dustbin for the eggshells from the eggs which she thought her mum must have laid when the baby was born!

After my parents’ honest chat with me, they gave me a Ladybird Book called The Human Body which contained the details they had explained to me (plus colour drawings!) and which also explained digestion, respiration etc. That book gave me a lifelong interest in how the human body works in sickness and in health.

Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, was probably only 14 or 15 years old when Jesus was conceived within her by divine, not human, means. Initially fearful and confused as to how this promised baby could possibly be created without the help of a man, Mary then demonstrates an impressively open-minded, trusting and humble faith in the fulfilment of God’s promises to send a Saviour, Jesus Christ, whose kingdom will have no end.

So, what does such a young girl as Mary do in this highly irregular, not to say potentially shameful situation, of being pregnant but not being married? Remember also that a standard human baby would have been enough of a worry, but her baby was nothing less than the Son of God.  A pretty tall order for one so young.

As many women have done before and since, Mary seeks female support and travels from the one-camel town which is Nazareth – it possibly only had around 150 inhabitants – for four days into the hill country of Judea to her much older relative (probably her cousin) Elizabeth who is six months pregnant with John the Baptist. Some scholars believe that Joseph may have accompanied Mary on this potentially dangerous and arduous trip at the start of a pregnancy which will also end with an arduous trip but that time to Bethlehem. We can only imagine the conversations between Zechariah, Elizabeth’s elderly husband and Joseph, if Joseph did go along to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home with Mary.

I wonder whether Mary was sure of the welcome she would receive from Elizabeth? Might Mary have feared criticism or rejection by Elizabeth? Perhaps, just perhaps, Mary was nervous about their meeting. I have no doubt that on her long journey, Mary would have prayed for a happy meeting. Her prayers are answered, if so, in spades.

As Luke describes it, what happens when Mary does eventually arrive at Elizabeth’s home is a wonderful scene, quite rare in the Bible, of a very pure, intimate, domestic demonstration of female bonding, unshakeable faith and mutual empowerment.  Though Mary’s pregnancy probably does not yet show physically, Elizabeth, wife of the Jewish priest, Zechariah, knows with eyes of faith that the child Mary carries within her is indeed Our Lord Jesus Christ.  John the Baptist, as an unborn baby, moves within Elizabeth’s womb when Mary greets Elizabeth. The Bible states that the unborn John ‘leapt for joy’, possibly a little bit of literary exaggeration but entirely appropriate for such a significant encounter with the divine Son of God.

Elizabeth calls Mary blessed because, she says, the fruit of Mary’s womb is ‘my Lord’ and because Mary believed that she would conceive and bear a Son even though Mary had absolutely no idea how it would happen.

No idea how it would happen……. Do you currently have no idea how you are going to get through a particularly testing time in your life?   Do you have no idea where money is going to come from? Do you have no idea how a personal disagreement or problem is going to be solved?  Do you feel up against it, muddled, confused, with no idea about something you simply do not understand?

Try singing your prayers, as Mary did in her beautiful, praiseful, worshipful, well-known song called The Magnificat.  Singing may relax you enough so that you can start to see God opening a door you did not see before. Keep an open mind and stay humble, believing, as Mary did, that nothing is impossible with God but do also, as she did, seek support and advice from other trustworthy sources. Dig deep within yourself to find the child-like faith Mary had in God who puts to flight proud hearts and stubborn wills, who feeds the hungry with good things and lifts up the lowly. Believe with all your heart, that, as we sing in the hymn Tell Out My Soul, God’s promise to each and every one of us, is firm and his mercy from age to age is sure and unchanging. He will bring us through every time of testing. Tears will last for a night, but joy will come in the morning.

From a sermon by Wendy Edwards, preached at St John’s on Sunday, December 22.

 

Picture: Waiting For The Word, Madonna – Mary & Jesus – artist Warner Sallman. Creative Commons.

The Synoptic Problem Revisited

Today at our weekly ecumenical Bible study on the following Sunday’s Gospel we were looking at the following passage:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,

“One does not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you”,
    and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’

Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

“Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.”’

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

This led me to reflect on the Synoptic Problem.  When I was training the predominant theory (simply put) was that Mark was written first, then Matthew, based on Mark and then Luke based on both.  However, one of my lecturers discussed the theory that Luke preceded Matthew.  This appealed to me as someone who likes things categorised; that Luke told stories and then Matthew rearranged them into more organised blocks.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,

“Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.”’

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and

“On their hands they will bear you up,
    so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

There were two things that I noticed:

  • Matthew had an extra “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” to the first response.
  • The order of the temptations is different.

Why might this be?

If Matthew wrote first then why would Luke remove the second half of the quote?  If Luke wrote first, then Matthew (as a Jew writing for Jews) might have included the second half of the Old Testament quote as he already knew it, and knew that it would point his readers to a known reference.

Why would Luke change the order of the temptations if Matthew wrote first?  I am sure you may come up with your own answers, but if Luke wrote first Matthew might change them so that they reflect a movement from the personal, to personal aggrandisement to power.

I am far from an expert in these matters, but from time to time I like to think about these things!

Thoughts about Jesus, Mary and Martha Luke 10:38-42

So these few verses tell a story of drama and passion, a conflict between two sisters, and in it Jesus is a hero – he is the model for us – we are each called to be heroes.

So let’s start the story. We all know that hospitality is a massively important aspect of middle-eastern tradition. In desert countries the welcoming of the stranger is the difference between life and death. And in Luke’s Gospel in particular hospitality is hallowed.

And Martha is doing it – or trying to do it perhaps. Martha is probably the older sister and she has invited Jesus and his mates into her house. She suddenly has a dozen or more people to feed with no warning.

Mary, on the other hand, sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching. Women were meant to be in the kitchen – why was she doing this? How dare she mess with roles and take the place of a man?

Martha gets a bit fed up – she starts banging the pans, hoping that someone will notice that she’s having to do everything. She looks forlorn. She glares at her sister. She gets more and more upset until she explodes… storming in to confront Jesus:

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me”.

Have you ever done that? Mary must have been very upset and angry indeed to ask a guest to intercede! She accuses Jesus of not caring for her – presumably she felt if he had cared then he would have sent Mary into the kitchen. I can relate to Martha – that dreadful feeling of hurt… that feeling of being overlooked, not cared for, that feeling of anger that others aren’t honouring her when she was trying to be hospitable. However, the fact is that it was terrible hospitality – how embarrassed everyone must have been.

Jesus responds “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her”.

She was so distracted that she couldn’t do hospitality – she couldn’t be attentive and gracious to her guests. Instead, she was grumbling and complaining. She was nasty to her sister and unfair to Jesus. There was a power play – she wanted to control Mary and she enlisted Jesus in this struggle.

But Jesus doesn’t play these games – he is a hero. Heroes respect the dignity and honour of all people, heroes rise above social contructs that demean and inhibit others. Heroes are almost always lone voices because people get sucked into ‘group think’. Heroes speak out – they aren’t passive.

Jesus could have colluded with the social convention and told Mary to get into the kitchen.

Jesus could have told Martha that this was between her and her sister and he didn’t want to get involved.

Jesus could have berated Martha for embarrassing him and the disciples.

Instead he recognised the pain inside her. Perhaps she had often been overlooked and this anger was about more than the events of the day. Perhaps she had many worries – perhaps she worried that if her sister behaved like a man then she would never marry. We don’t know, but it is an act of kindness to recognise the worries, to acknowledge then.

And then an invitation. Mary has chosen the better part and it won’t be taken away from her. Perhaps Martha can choose that too… “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” That thing is to know the love of God and to rest in it.

So what about us? Are we so busy that we can’t sit at the feel of Jesus? Are we so worried and distracted that our efforts of hospitality go awry? Do we end up resentful of others?

The story reminds me a bit of the Prodigal Son. The father being with the younger son, and the older son who is cross. Then the father pleading with the older son. In this case the story is suspended once again. We don’t know whether Martha joined the part or remained aloof. We don’t know whether everyone enjoyed the meal together and whether Mary and Martha reconciled their differences.

Where do you see yourself in the story – are you the one carrying pain, working so hard, worrying so much? Are you the one that has been attacked because you are following your heart? Are you the hero that can stand up for others without dehumanising anyone? Are you all three?

Discipleship

Luke 14:26 ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

Happiness cannot be found by seeking it – unhappiness is caused by our false beliefs about what makes us happy, and these are so ingrained by society that we are not even aware that we have them – like a dreamer in a dream.  Once we realise that attempting to please others will never bring us happiness we can start to understand this.

Not trying to please others  is difficult.  I write this as someone who got a career because that is what you are expected to do after university.  It was all very pleasant, passed the time nicely, paid the mortgage, but wasn’t what I was called to do.  As I changed my life, discovered my vocation, left the career, stopped worrying about what the world might think (at least sometimes) I found a deeper happiness.  But – it was a scary process!

I was asked over 30 years ago if I might have a vocation to the priesthood, but at that time I was too scared to give up the nascent career that I had, too worried about what “they” might say.  Two questions which Lesley helpfully (really) asks me from time to time are:

  • Who are they – name them?
  • What is the worst that could happen?

They do help 🙂

On the road to Emmaus

This morning’s sermon…

Luke 24.13-35

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles* from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad.* 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth,* who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.* Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah* should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us* while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Have you ever walked in the wrong direction? Perhaps for a long distance or for a long time? In this story the disciples, who incidentally had been told by some women that the body was missing and that there were some angels telling them that Jesus was alive, they left Jerusalem and walked to Emmaus. Presumably because they couldn’t believe that Jesus was alive. Presumably they were giving up on being part of the fellowship and going to go home to resume their normal lives. They were sad, dejected, depressed, perhaps. This is a story of repentance, they walk 7 miles in the wrong direction and then they turn around and walk the seven miles back to Jerusalem. Repentance is simply this, it is turning around and walking in the right direction.
I’m writing a book at the moment. It is not very loosely based on my life story. In it, the main character Ashley spends all her time trying to sort her life out and walk in the right direction but despite these sometimes noble efforts she is often walking in the wrong direction. I belong to a writer’s group and each time that I submit a chapter the others in the group are saying “Oh No, Poor Ashley, what now!” I’m afraid the story of my life is a series of face palms. I relate to the disciples walking in the wrong direction. I am with them on the road. And fortunately so is Jesus. You’ll notice that Jesus is also walking in the wrong direction, walking alongside them, walking alongside us when we get it wrong. In fact you might find it weird that the journey where Jesus is closely walking with them is when they have it wrong, he doesn’t bother accompanying them on the journey when they have it right!
And the story is full of irony – they say to Jesus ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ Well actually Jesus knows quite a lot about the things that have happened, but responds, ‘What things?’ And they say to Jesus, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth.’ You can almost see Jesus sniggering at this point. Or perhaps imagine the disciples telling the story later – hamming it up – “So then we said to Jesus – JESUS – we said to him ‘do you know nothing of the things that have happened’…. And you’ll never guess what Jesus said….” And then there is the irony that they tell Jesus that it has been three days since these things happened – and what did Jesus say would happen on the third day?
Times of transition are immensely fruitful in our spiritual lives. These disciples had presumably been with Jesus for three years and not really understood what Jesus was on about. They wouldn’t have chosen it but the trauma and loss that they experienced enabled them to hear Jesus for the first time. They were in an abyss and that is the place where we can find faith in a new way, a deeper way…. Of course not if we are bitter and closed, but if we have open hearts and allow God into our places of fear and anger then transition can be immensely fruitful. And look at the disciples – they are open and candid even with a stranger.
There is a story of a Zen master who had a visitor come and ask for wisdom, and the visitor didn’t stop talking, talking about his problems, talking about all that he had tried. Eventually the Zen master started pouring tea into his cup and he kept pouring even though the cup was overflowing. The Zen master said “Stop you can’t fit any more in, the cup is overflowing.” “And so it is with you,” replied the Zen master.
The disciple’s cups had been emptied. Only now could they take in what Jesus was saying, and their hearts burned within them. It reminds me of when I first became a Christian – I didn’t want to believe in God, but I showed up to church each week, wanting to disprove it, and my heart burned within me when I hear the truth, however weird and freaky it was, I couldn’t help myself.
In the breaking of the bread they meet Jesus. I wonder whether that is because the see his wounds, one of the only things we know about Jesus’ resurrection body is that he retains his wounds. Our wounds are clearly nothing to be ashamed of.
So the disciples travel back to Jerusalem, they rejoin the church and they proclaim the familiar Easter greeting “Christ is Risen” to which the rest proclaim, “He is Risen indeed.” This is our calling – to be part of a church which travels towards the Holy City, the place where we can know God, and along the journey we proclaim the risen Christ. Amen.

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.

Sermon – Luke 2:15-21 (Jennifer’s Christmas I Sermon)

English: Our beloved Lady Saint Mary with Her ...
Image via Wikipedia

Luke 2.15-21

15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
21After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Wonders of the Universe!
Dr. Brian Cox!
What an amazing series,
And we were able to watch it again this week.

I enjoyed it possibly even more than the first time through.
It is just one of those subjects that compel us to return again and again.

The sheer magnitude of the numbers, of space, time, matter,
just blow our minds.
They are beyond our comprehension.

One of the joys of this series for me is the way Brian Cox and the team behind the programs use illustrations from our planet earth,
Familiar television images,
to make more comprehensible the wonders of the universe that are so hard for our imagination to grasp.

The picture of a glacier breaking up into the sea
To illustrate the forward motion of time.

The way space/time is curved by the gravitational pull of the fabric of the universe illustrated by the beautiful peaks and troughs of a snow covered mountain range viewed from above.

One of the wonders of Our God that we celebrate at Christmas time is that the Creator of the Whole Universe comes to live among us here on this little planet earth.

What’s more, he is born as a vulnerable little baby with only an animals’ manger for a cradle.

The paradox of our faith, God becomes human.
We just can’t get our minds round it.

2000 years ago, when the angels appeared to the shepherds and told them to go to Bethlehem to see “the Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
The shepherds didn’t wait.
They didn’t doubt their own senses, but went straight away to Bethlehem and found the baby.
The meeting with baby Jesus had such a profound effect on them that they couldn’t keep it to themselves but spread it to the whole town.
Everyone was amazed.
And it wasn’t the encounter with the angels that set the shepherds talking to everyone they met,
but the encounter with the baby.
You might have expected the visit by the angels to have filled the shepherds with such awe and wonder that they couldn’t help worshipping God.
After all, it isn’t every day that you’re visited by a heavenly choir who relay a direct message from God.
But although you might easily see a baby every day, it was actually the baby that set the shepherds aflame for God.

So even at that time,
when Jesus was newborn and completely helpless and vulnerable like every other newborn baby,
incapable even of smiling because he was so young, there was still something so special about him that it made the shepherds spread the word concerning him and return glorifying and praising God.

The shepherds could perhaps be described as the first evangelists, as they were the first people to tell others about Jesus.

Mary, by contrast, said nothing. She treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart,
which is perhaps fairly unusual behaviour for a mother.
Many mothers can’t wait to sing the praises of their children, and tell anyone who will listen all about their child’s remarkable qualities.
But for Mary it was too important and too deep to be casually tossed around in idle chatter.
Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart, using them as the precious basis for all her future thought and way of being.

So Mary too was changed by her encounter with the baby.
When the baby was eight days old, Mary took him to be circumcised as the Law demanded, and at his naming ceremony named him Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us –
Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us
Just like those incomprehensible wonders of the universe are made more real for us by illustrations from our familiar earth,
So we find that the Supreme Mystery that is Our God
is made more real for us
by the Birth, Life, Death and Resurrection of a simple man – Jesus of Nazareth –
someone just like us, familiar to us all.

And there is more –
Jesus is not simply an illustration of what God is like,
he is God with us.

Just as we have come to appreciate more clearly the physics of the material universe and use these powers to enrich our lives,

So as we, like Mary, treasure up all these things
and ponder in our hearts
The Word made flesh and dwelling among us
The name of Jesus, God with us, gives us power,
power to become the adopted children of God, and call him Abba, Father.