Sunday, 28 June 2015

A touching place

I guess there are many ways of talking about a church and maybe the poetry of John Bell from the Iona community is as good as it gets – the church should be, can be, must be a touching place where Christ shows his face and gives his embrace.

We give thanks for our churches, St John is celebrating its feast of Dedication this morning,  which stands as a sign to those whose faith and love of God led them to this place and here to create a touching place with God.

St John's and St Matthias are truly places where people come and touch:
Lovers old and young told hands and make vows
Bishops have come and with gentle hands  baptized and confirmed, the faith of God’s children and the life Jesus calls us into and ordained those willing to serve as priests.
Those who have shed the shackles of this life have been brought into this church, often carried by their loved ones at the end of their life’s journey

Here Heaven and earth touch and Gods life is released in to the world and
all of us can open our hands and touch the living God in the sacrament of his body and blood.

Yes the Church is truly a touching place
A place of memory and love : a place for forgiveness and peace.

And how appropriate to have for our thoughts and inspiration this morning a story of touch and encounter in our gospel reading

In this story, two people come to Jesus with their needs.  They are very different people.  Jairus is an important man.  Mark 5v22 says ‘a synagogue ruler’.  He’s a man, he’s a ruler, he has a family, he’s religious and very respectable in the community.

The woman is not even named.  Jesus calls her ‘Daughter’ in v34, which is even better than telling us her name.  But as the story begins she is an unnamed and unclean woman.  She has an unstoppable flow of blood which made her perpetually, ceremonially unclean, untouchable even in her home for 12 long years.  This woman is unnamed, unclean, sick and now in despair.

 So this woman has had 12 years of great suffering. 

She is very different to Jairus.  Jairus, we can imagine, has had 12 years of joy with his 12 year old daughter.  But now with his daughter on death’s door, Jairus and the women are driven by the same need to touch God.  They are both needy beggars coming to Jesus. Both take a journey to reach out and touch the only one who can give them their hearts desire.

In verse 22 this respectable man falls at Jesus’ feet in a public place and pleads earnestly with Him.  This was very dangerous for Jairus to do.  We know from chapter 3 verse 6 that the religious authorities have been plotting to kill Jesus.  So for this synagogue ruler to fall at Jesus’ feet could well have cost him his job and his reputation.  But what’s that compared to your 12 year old girl?

So Jairus and the woman are very different, both come to Jesus in their need.
 And both of them think they know how Jesus is going to help them.  They both have very particular expectations of Jesus – one's he will not meet but change!

Jairus thinks Jesus ought to come and lay hands on his sick daughter, he practically tells Jesus what to do and expects him to act immediately. He probably does this because Jesus had performed other healings where that’s what He did – He laid hands on people. 

The woman also thinks she knows how to get a healing.  She thinks if she just touches Jesus’ clothes she’ll be healed. 

But for both of them Jesus frustrates their plans and responds in ways that they were not expecting.

For Jarius –It is now too late, there was too much delay the girl is now dead. There is no point. He has made the journey for nothing, he has risked everything only to fail – or so it would seem when Jesus finally enters the house

For the nameless woman she is not allowed to get away with the  anonymity  she desires, touching Jesus means that she is now in a very public place, a central place within the crowd in which she hoped to remain hidden, a skill she had no doubt developed over the last 12 years.

Jairus’s story is our story. 
The Nameless womans experience is ours

Every one of us either has had or will have moments like this in our Christian lives.  We have come to Jesus.  We have real needs.  We are sure we know the best way He can help us.  But Jesus doesn’t always  do what we’d thought would happen or planed to occur.

As we saw in the calming of the storm last week – Jesus does not always act or react in a way that we expect, or to a timetable we determine. We will go through storms and Jesus won’t calm them right away.  It will get to the point where we say “I’m dying here and you don’t care do you?”. . 

And as we see when a women reaches out to touch Jesus and when He reaches out to touch a small child something miraculous does occur – life is given, is strengthened, is healed, is renewed.

And at the end of the story Jesus has saved both daughters. Everyone thought the bleeding woman could wait while Jesus healed the dying girl.  But no – Jesus  saved the woman with the flow of blood and He’s saved the dying girl.  He calls the one ‘daughter’, He calls the other ‘Talitha’ – both terms of great affection.  He does care, He is powerful and He does know how to bring things to a happily ever after that far outstrips anything we expected. 

So as we give thanks for those who first build and dedicated St John's church to the glory of God, As we give thanks and work to preserve the vision and mission of those who went before us in every church, let us also continue to care for this touching place and never limit the love and power of God by closing its doors to those who would seek refuge 

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Jesus calms the stormy waters of life

“Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.”

The ups and downs, the hardships and pain of life have often been compared to stormy seas.

They come upon us whether we like it or not. They terrify us. They reduce us and like sea sickness itself our lives are turned inside out with retching pain.

The stormy sea is a powerful metaphor for all that threatens to destroy our stability and security. We don’t know whether we can survive their turbulent waters and depths that can swallow us whole. And we don’t know how long such storms will last.

As Mark tells the story, the disciples were terrified that the boat was going to break up and everyone would die. But Jesus was asleep, on a cushion no less, Mark notes, adding to the contrast between Jesus’ tranquility and the disciples’ panic, apparently oblivious to their pending doom. They wake him and cry, "Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?" (v. 38). Of course, Jesus quiets the storm with a word, but then he chides the disciples: "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?" (v. 40).

Some of the lessons in the story are obvious. Jesus has power over the storms of life, experiences them alongside us, loves us, saves us from them and wants us to trust him more than we do.

But there is more for us to take from this episode than the illustration of a simple truth that Jesus will rescue us when we are in danger. Indeed this is the meaning we give to his dying on the cross an action in which Jesus saves us from our sin!

In the face of those who make the allegation that God does not care, that we are alone in this universe and have been left alone to make the best of things on our own, there is nothing in this episode to suggest that Jesus is absent. He is with the disciples, it is his silence that they struggle to understand. He is silent, apart from his content snoring on a cushion, his silence is not the same as absence.

The counterpoint of Jesus, who is calm and asleep not least, and his disciples, who are frantic with fear, is one that is all too familiar for us in our lives.

Just like the disciples we too wonder at those times in our lives when we find ourselves in the midst of a storm, whether or not Jesus is there, whether or not he cares about out struggles and fears. Indeed there are times when we like the disciples cry out in fear and wonder why he seems so slow to come to our aid?

But the truth that Mark in recounting this episode of Jesus’ life might be pointing to is that Jesus is not just in control at the end of the story when he bids the waves to cease and the wind to be calm, Jesus is in control as he is present throughout the whole episode.

The criticism that Jesus has for his disciples is that they doubted this, that they thought they were in peril when in fact this cannot be the case because their Lord and master is right there with them.

The psalmist shares our concern, that God does indeed seems asleep and uninterested in our plight:
Rise up ! Why Sleep, O Lord
Awake and do not reject us for ever
why do you hide your face and forget our grief and oppression? Psalm 45:  24-25

Maybe that’s why Mark included this story. The not-so-obvious lesson is that Jesus was just as much in control, and the disciples were just as safe in his hands, while he was asleep as while he was awake.  Most of the time, life seems like a relentless voyage from one storm to the next. Faith in God will not immunize us from the storms of life, it is not a lucky charm that will keep us pain free and emotionally secure.

The lesson to trust in God at all times is brilliantly illustrated in the story of David and Goliath. Once again it clear that in the midst of the crisis facing King Saul and all his soldiers their faith in God wavers. Their fear paralyses them and they cannot respond to the defiant challenge of Goliath. That is until David appears, David who knows a thing or two about trust in God as he looks after his father’s sheep and when necessary wrestles with lions to keep them safe.

David, true of heart confronts the giant Goliath and proclaims his faith in the unseen God of Israel and brings him down with a small smooth pebble from the brook.

God is our refuge and strength
a very present help in trouble
therefore we will not fear, thought the earth be moved
and though the mountains tremble in the heart of the sea
thought the waters rage and swell
and though the mountains quake at the towering sea
         Psalm 46 :1-3

Monday, 15 June 2015

Living with parables - the mustard seed as a sign of the Kingdom of God

Jesus speaks to us in parable – he want us not to be passive listeners or simply to follow rules and regulations slavishly, he wants us to use our minds, ask questions, yes to dream dreams that will inspire our vision and by so doing create a better and hope filled future for those who come after us.

Parables are short stories that illustrate a particular religious or moral idea, short tales that communicate universal truths. Parables are a kind of extended metaphor, which is one way – and maybe the best way – of grasping the amazing wonder that is God within the limits of human language.
And today’s parable is about exactly that: the amazing wonder that is God. Jesus refers to it as the “kingdom of God,”

It refers not to territory, as in the United Kingdom, but to dominion, as in a semi-autonomous state that is under the sovereignty of another – namely God. The kind of kingdom Jesus describes is a kingdom in which the members have choice, the free will to make decisions about their lives, their involvement, their direction, and their future.

And the first choice we get to make is about which kingdom to call our own. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of God, he is talking about a kingdom inhabited by the righteous, and this kingdom is not the only kingdom.

Jesus acknowledge that there is more than one Kingdom, he acknowledges that there is the Kingdom of Satan. In last weeks gospel reading, for instance, he asks, “If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand?” The kingdom of evil is real; it’s all around us all the time, and we are lured by it and sometimes swayed by it.

We are faced with a choice, and it a choice that we make minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day in the thoughts we hold, in the words we use and ultimately in the actions we take. Do we choose the path of righteousness that leads to the kingdom of God or do turn inwards and relying upon our own resources treat the path that leads us to death and kingdom of Satan?

When we make a choice that puts our own selfish wishes over the real needs of the community that surrounds us. When we make a choice that wreaks violence on someone else – be it physical, emotional, or spiritual pain. When we make a choice that belittles other people according to category – be it race, or gender, or disability.
We are not walking towards the kingdom of God

In the kingdom of God, we would put aside our own egotistical need to have power over anyone else, and instead cultivate the qualities and gifts that come from the Holy Spirit such as Love, compassion, understanding, and cooperation.

In the kingdom of God, we would cease all violence, repenting of the evil that enslaves us, and instead promote true dialogue, empathy, and acceptance.

In the kingdom of God, we will bring an end to our own oppression of others, and instead foster open-mindedness, willingness to encounter what is new, and appreciation for difference.

This is a hopeful vision of paradise, and Jesus offers this to us every day – in his parables, in the sacraments, and in the spirit embodied in everyone we meet.

It seems so very clear. Kingdom of God: good. Kingdom of Satan: bad. Choose the good and reject the bad. So why is it that so often we do not make the right choice?

One reason – perhaps the biggest reason – is fear.
When we are afraid of something, we sometimes choose what is safe over what may seem challenging.
When we are afraid of what we know about some people, we sometimes choose to disparage them rather than take the opportunity to make new acquaintances.
When we are afraid of what we do not know, we sometimes choose to avoid the growth that comes only through learning something new, retreating instead into a cocoon of ignorance.

But according to Mark’s gospel, in the kingdom of God it is “as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”

We do not know how the miracle that is God’s love works, how it grows, or what makes it sprout. This lack of knowledge leaves some even with in the church fear filled – fearful  of the unknown, and so they choose to either avoiding confrontation, or ceaseing in the intellectual struggle that is faith and the heart ache that comes with love, in stead acquiescing to our darker thoughts, choosing what is safe over what is right.
But the choice is for us to respond in hopeful confidence, trusting that God is doing more than we can ask or imagine – even when we cannot see, or refuse to see, or do not comprehend.

When faced with difficult choices we often end up saying “I’ll go with my gut instincts” It may not always be possible to see the clear outcome of analytical thought so we go back to our basic instincts, those that have ensure the evolution and survival of the human race.
But this gut instinct will not lead us to God

Think of those who have made the right choice in their lives. Think of Jesus who choose his cross, this was not a gut instinct, that would have been to run away, nor was it a calculated risk, the odds were stacked too high against him, it was a choice of love and faith.

We heard this morning in Mark 4: “For the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs.”
What seems like a trivial matter, then, can become the pattern of a lifetime.
The smallest of seeds becomes the greatest of all shrubs.
The tiniest of babes can become the greatest of human living.
And even the worst human can become the greatest of all examples of what it is to choose to live in the kingdom of God.

Because that choice comes not once in a lifetime, not ever so rarely, not only now and again. The choice to live in the kingdom of God comes to each of us every hour of every day.

So let us walk by faith, not by sight, with confidence. For the love of Christ urges us on. Everything old has passed away, and in Christ there is a new creation.
That new creation is us. And it is up to us to make the choice for the kingdom of God.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

A family under God

The place and role of the family is never far from headlines. Pope Francis has at the beginning of this ministry as Pope sent tremors through the world wide Roman Catholic community in the way in which he chooses not just to live, simply, but also last year when he  Catholic bishops gathered in Rome to listen hard to the “beat of this age” as he opened a landmark assembly that many hope will spark reform of some of the Roman Catholic church’s stances on marriage, sex and divorce.

Congratulations to Egzon and Christina married at St John 
With the change to the definition of marriage in this country last year
to include same sex union, there is much debate on not just the place and role of marriage but sexuality and the impact on our understanding of family. Some see these moves as eroding the family and contributing to the further disintegration of society where as others take a more hope- filled view that new understanding of marriage and sexuality will enhance and strength the institution of the family.

It interesting that when it comes to the pages of the bible the image of family is not a “Hello” or “OK” airbrushed version but a more realistic and dare I say dysfunctional description of family life. From Cain and Able the children of Adam and Eve to Noah and his sons, Isaac and Esau, Samuel, Moses and  David; family life is not without its tensions and even violence.

Consider Jesus' family, for example. His birth is surrounded with scandal as Mary finds herself with child but unmarried. St John in his gospel uses language that suggested that Jesus' relationship with his mother was rather strained, Jesus is only recorded as referring to his mother as “Woman” and at the wedding of Cana in Galilee he seems to be rather abrupt with his mother. Similar tensions appear to have existed between him and his siblings, as well.

And then we have the occasion referred to in our Gospel this morning, Mark 3.21 which says: "21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind”.

This episode in Marks account of Jesus’ life is set in a wider context that runs through out the gospels, namely that people around Jesus find it hard to understand who he really is. Jesus does not fit in with the expectations or traditions held dear by those around him. His own family assume he has lost his sanity and the religious authorities see him as an evil and dangerous force who will destroy their power and the traditions handed down since the time of Moses concluding that he must be possessed by Satan.

The scene underscores how those who presumably they were in the position to understand Jesus were not immediately able to see him as God's agent. As Jesus announced and re-inaugurated God's intentions for human flourishing, many could not overcome the disorienting character of his message. Even close relatives and religious insiders were bewildered by what he said, which threatened to disrupt so many aspects of human society.

Maybe Jesus' relatives were dismayed that the first-born son wasn't supporting his family but was gallivanting around Galilee as a self-appointed prophet. Or maybe they wanted him, as Messiah, to have bigger and better ambitions, such as promising a revolution instead of preaching and healing the sick. The Gospel of Mark does not explain; it merely sets up a showdown of sorts when the family arrives to seize Jesus.

When the crowd says that his family is summoning him from outside the crowded building, Jesus answers with a shocking statement: "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? ... Look, here [these people seated around me] are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God's will is my brother, sister and mother."

It's good news for those inside the house, who seek to identify with Jesus and his message. Its good news for the disciples who have left their families and their homes (Mark 10.28-30) and its good news for Christians from the earliest time to our own day who face persecution from their families when they embrace Jesus as their Lord, especially those who convert.

It is bad news, however, for his relatives on the outside of the house who seek to impede his mission and ministry to the poor, sick and dispossessed and for others who have dedicated their lives to preserving the traditions and customs of the past in order to sure up their own position of power and provide social stability

Jesus redefines Family. Jesus redefines the criteria for who constitutes his true family.
This goes beyond striking back at his mother and brothers' opinion about his sanity. More foundationally, Jesus makes a claim about what it might mean to belong to the community he is creating, the Kingdom of God  and later the Church.

He makes a claim about identity. Families, or "households," were the primary social and economic units of first-century society as much as they are in our modern urban societies. Jesus speaks to deeply embedded cultural assumptions when he defines his true family not by blood relations or kinship ties but by doing the will of God.

For Jesus, family -- at least, one type of family -- is a community of people joined as an expression of their commitment to discover and manifest God's will. It would appear that Jesus is allowing for a new understanding of family, one defined by those who promote God's will.

As many in our day are urging society, and yes the church too, to redefine our understanding of family I wonder if we will find ourselves on the outside of the house as Jesus’ family or on the inside with his disciples?

Obviously, Christians have not found consensus on these topics, as discussions of sexuality and marriage have polarized many communities.

Jesus did not abolish the idea of family or household. It goes too far to suggest he overthrew his culture's values about family, society and religion -- in this passage or any other. But he does consistently unsettle and sometimes redefines those values.

When Jesus teaches, heals and makes pronouncements, everything gets put up for renegotiation. Old values aren't necessarily flawed, simply by virtue of their being old or established. But God's presence in the world, manifested through Jesus' words and actions, repeatedly turns on their head the conventional assumptions about what's "real" or what's "normal."

Jesus’ actions and words upset those around him as much as they are upsetting our world today. Jesus creates a reversal of priority, not to change for change's sake, but so we might reconsider just how  our living  can be authentic manifestations of who God is and how God can be known.