The Gift of Bread

bread-of-life

(Exodus 16, 2-4 & 9-15; Ephesians 4,1-16; John 6,24-35)

If you invited me to dinner, and I turned up on your doorsteps with a loaf of bread as a gift, rather than the customary flowers, or wine, or box of chocolates, I don’t think you would be very impressed.

Yet today’s Gospel reading (along with that for last week, and those for the next three weeks) are from the long sixth chapter of John’s Gospel which is entirely concerned with a gift of bread: bread given to the multitude in the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, and the Bread of Life given to the world in the coming of Jesus.

That says a gift of bread is something special.

At the heart of today’s Gospel reading is the saying: “I am the bread of life”, one of the ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel that are so comforting to many Christians. They are not, of course, words of the historical Jesus. John’s Gospel was probably composed by a community of Christians late in the 1st century, based around a book of miracles or ‘signs’ of Jesus. The ‘I am’ sayings are part of the discourses that the Gospel writers composed and placed on the lips of Jesus as a profound theological reflection on the person and mission of Jesus which the signs demonstrated.

In this, the writers of John were helping us to look at the miracles in what the Dean of St Albans says is the proper way. In his book ‘The Meaning in the Miracles”, Jeffrey John illustrates from his own schooldays our modern tendency to get hung up on explaining what happened in the miracles. He tells of two contrasting RE teachers: Mr Davies, who insisted the miracles happened exactly as described, and were demonstrations of Jesus’s divine power (i.e. the bread and fish were changed into enough food for everyone); and Miss Tomkins, who insisted nothing supernatural happened, but that the miracles were a demonstration of the influence of Jesus which brought out the best in everyone (i.e. people were prompted by the small boy’s example to share their food).

In contrast to these approaches, with their concentration on what happened, Jeffrey John guides us to look at the setting and background which informed the creation of the miracle stories, in order to try to understand what the writers are trying to tell us about what God is doing through Jesus, his words and his actions.

The Old Testament is the primary background for the Gospel writers, and, just as with the birth stories in Matthew and Luke, the stories of Jesus’s miracles are ‘midrash’ or ‘haggadah’ – writings which weave incidents from the Old Testament into the story of Jesus, to illustrate how he continues and perfects the work of God described in them. So the Feeding of the 5000 links back to the stories in Exodus of the manna in the desert, and in 2 Kings 4 of Elisha feeding 100 prophets with 20 loaves of bread, and shows that Jesus is both a new Moses and a new Elisha, but is also greater than both, and that his coming fulfils both the Law and the Prophets.

But there are richer meanings too.

In Deuteronomy, bread is used to stand for the Word of God, so the gift of bread for all also means the preaching of the Gospel to all. That is why the Synoptic Gospels contain two stories of the feeding of the multitude, one with symbolic numbers which show it refers to the preaching of the Gospel to the Jews, and the other referring to taking the Gospel to the Gentiles.

For the gospel writers, the bread in the miracle also refers to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, so the gift of bread is also the gift of the continuing presence of Jesus in the sacrament. For Christians today, depending whether their church tradition places more emphasis on meeting Christ in Word or in Sacrament, one or other of these will be more important – but both meanings are there in the richness of the story.

But the meaning in the scriptures is not confined to those that were seen by those who wrote them. As we continue to read them, inspired by the Holy Spirit and informed by two thousand years of Christian thought and study, we continue to find meaning in them related to our lives in the church and in the world today.

In the story we heard from Exodus, the Hebrews have been freed from slavery in Egypt by the power of God under the leadership of Moses. Their initial joy, however turns to grumbling when they realise they no longer have food and water readily available. So they complain, and wish themselves back under the yoke of their slavemasters, where they were at least guaranteed a regular food supply. God however provides for them in the form of quails and manna. The message for us too is that God will provide enough to satisfy our basic needs on a daily basis. There is no need for us to store up supplies, or exclude others to guarantee we have enough.

Spiritually, also, some of us are afraid of the freedom to study and interpret God’s word in the light of modern insights. Some would rather remain in  the comparative security of slavery to someone else’s interpretation, rather than risk the freedom of the unknown.

The letter to the Ephesians also talks about resources, this time for the Christian community. This writer, too, repeats the message that God has provided enough for the needs of each church community. All that is needed is for people to make the resources available, with generosity and humility, in a way that builds up the unity of the community. This is what it means to “live a life worthy of our calling”.

If we view this letter through the lens of the discourse on the Bread of Life, we can see how we offer ourselves, as ordinary people, ‘bread’, and God takes what we offer and transforms it into the Bread of Life for those we serve and share the Gospel with.

This message is not just meant for those called to ordained or licensed ministry. All of us have a Christian vocation, though, as the letter points out, for each of us it will be different. When we offer our gifts to be used by the Body of Christ, and allow them to be used as the body decides is best for all, then our gifts will help to build up the church, and bring it to that maturity, that total obedience to the will of God we see in Jesus Christ.

What bread do you have to offer to build up the body today?

The reading from John’s Gospel, as always, speaks to us on two levels. The story tells how God, through Jesus,   provided for the physical needs of the people. They come to demand, as did the Hebrews of old, that he does it again. But Jesus is reluctant to do so. Although in the gospels Jesus does do miracles, he is scathing about those who demand a supply of them before they will accept who he is.

So we can see that the bread of life is a metaphor for the complete trust we should have that God will meet all our needs  both physical and spiritual. Within the physical world, God has provided enough to meet the physical needs of everyone. We just need to share it.

The majority of wars are not fought  over religion (as so many people believe nowadays) but over control of resources: land and water, oil, minerals and transport routes. When we compete to control these resources, and keep them for ourselves and when we fail to care for the resources God has given us, some of us go hungry. It is only when we imitate Christ, in his life of simplicity, generosity and self-sacrifice that we find there is, in fact, enough to allow for everyone to flourish.

And in our personal lives, the gift of bread encourages us to reflect on what we need to satisfy us. We are encouraged by advertising to accumulate more and more ‘stuff’, the shiny technology, the latest thing, the newest miracle device. But do we actually need that? Could we not find more satisfaction in the simpler things of life, in simplicity of ‘bread’ and in sharing what we have with others, as Jesus did?

The Gospel also speaks of the way, through Jesus, God provides for our spiritual needs. The purpose of these signs is not to demonstrate God’s power over the physical world, but to bring people back into a relationship of faith, trust, and acceptance of God’s rule in their lives.

Through Jesus, God offers us a pattern for the way we should live in order to be satisfied spiritually. Jesus gives himself as the bread of life – an ordinary human being, transformed into something extraordinary and miraculous by the grace of God. He gives himself without limit. He gives himself without restriction, to the sinful and unworthy as much as to the faithful. He gives himself sacrificially, allowing himself to be ignored, abused and broken without retaliation.

If we adopt that way of living and believing, if we take Jesus into ourselves and feed on him in faith, then we will become like him, a gift to the whole world, the bread of life for others.

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Feeding of the 5000.

bread-of-life(Ephesians 3, 14-21; John 6, 1-21)

Do you think about food a lot? Are you already thinking about what you will be having for lunch today?

If an alien were to come from another planet, and land in the North Western parts of our planet, it might be forgiven for thinking that the human race is obsessed with food.

It would find endless advertisements on billboards, in magazines, and on TV, for all sorts of food. It would see vast supermarkets, filled with an infinite variety of things to eat; numerous cookery programmes on TV; and in any reasonable sized town, it would find streets full of restaurants, pubs and fast-food outlets, offering dishes from different countries and cultures, or based on different ingredients.

Our alien might also conclude that, for humans, the need for food is all about being healthy, living a long time and (especially for the female of the species) being attractive to the opposite sex. It would find that magazines and newspapers are full of articles about food, what it can do for you, or the harm eating the wrong things can do. For instance in one issue of a Sunday paper, I found a booklet about how to eat for health; an article entitled “How to live to 140” by a man who believes a special very low calorie diet will extend his life span by 60 years; and a photo feature in the colour supplement about overweight Americans who pay out up to $1400 for “A Cruise to Lose” – a Caribbean cruise with a guru who will teach them how to lose weight.

And of course, magazines and TV are full of stories about how young women, especially rich and famous ones, contract food-based illnesses like anorexia nervosa and bulimia, because of their unhappiness with their lives and their bodies.

Now, if our alien had landed 2000 or more years ago, in the world in which the Bible was written, it would have found a very different attitude to food. There would be concern about food, but not about health, or slimness or variety. What it would find would be a very basic concern with getting enough food to survive.

There is a lot in the Bible about food; and for those who wrote the Bible, and for Jesus, food, and especially the most basic food, bread, was a symbol of God’s generosity and care for creation. It stands for the provision God makes to meet the basic needs of the human race – physical, emotional and spiritual. And a feast or a banquet – enough food to meet our hunger and more to spare – stands for the ultimate provision for all our needs that we will find in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus himself used the basic everyday food of his culture – bread and wine – to stand for himself in the Last Supper which we repeat in our service of Holy Communion. The bread reminds us of Our Lord, taken by God, blessed by the Spirit, broken by betrayal and death on the cross, and raised to share himself with the whole world throughout time. Today’s Gospel story of the feeding of the multitude is linked with that supper and that symbolism, and was considered so important by the Gospel writers that it appears in all four Gospels – in some of them in two different versions.

Now, if you were a Biblical scholar, you would look at this story and find links with the Old Testament stories of the giving of manna in the wilderness and Elisha’s miracle. You would seek find deep symbolic significance in the fine detail of the number of loaves and fishes, the number of people present, and the amount of crumbs left over; and you would seek parallels with the story of the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist, and our present day services of Holy Communion. Now, although these scholarly investigations may be very fascinating, I am not sure that it makes things very interesting for us.

I also don’t think it is very profitable to try to decide what actually happened on the occasion our Gospel story describes. There are two basic approaches to the interpretation of miracles. One takes a literalist approach, and says everything happened just as it is described, and we must accept this as the Word of God. The other is a reductionist approach, which dismisses anything supernatural as unscientific, and attempts to find a rational explanation for any miracle. Thus, the first approach would say that what actually happened was that the loaves and fishes were multiplied by an act of God’s power to provide food for everyone; the second would say that when the little boy generously offered his food, everyone else was shamed into sharing the food they had brought, so there was again enough for everyone.

Both of these approaches actually miss the point of the Gospel, which is not to give a historical account of what actually happened, but to demonstrate who Jesus was, and to inspire faith in him. We have to read behind the actual incident to understand this. So, when Jesus repeats and goes beyond what Moses and Elisha did, the story is telling the reader that Jesus is greater than, and the fulfilment of, the Law and the Prophets.

But there are always many levels of meaning to Bible stories, and the more we read them the more meanings we find. So, let us look at this story another way. It talks about a very basic human need – to be fed – and asks, “How do you deal with this?”

Jesus asks his disciples this question, and receives different responses. Philip stands for the attitude – very common today – that you need lots of money to solve any problem. But, as he soon realised, even the largest amount of money he could think of – a whole years wages – would not be sufficient.

Andrew stands for the practical approach – what you need are the proper resources. But he wasn’t very keen to offer his own resources, and what was available was clearly not adequate, in his opinion.

The small boy, however, stands for a response of uninhibited generosity, which gives everything you have to meet the needs of others. Jesus’ response to this generosity – which stands for God’s response – is to take what is offered sacrificially, and to use it to far greater effect than we could do on our own.

That the passage is not actually about physical hunger is made clear in the following passage (which you may hear over the next four weeks ) in which Jesus speaks of himself as “The Bread of Life”. It is talking about people’s spiritual hunger, that hunger which Mother Theresa said is the real hunger of the Western world, and which is becoming more and more acute. It is the hunger to be needed, to have our talents and our selves valued, to be loved and appreciated just as we are.

Jesus’ response tells us that God is not the least bit interested in how young or old we are; whether we are fat or thin, sick or healthy, poor or wealthy, nor whether the rest of the world thinks we are fashionable or attractive. God accepts us the way a good parent values his or her child, for what we are and what we have the potential to be; but most of all, for what we are prepared to give of ourselves in love and generosity to others – because in that way we imitate our heavenly Father.

And if we offer what we have – our material and spiritual resources, however limited – then as our reading from Ephesians tells us, through the Spirit God will be able “to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine”.

I have a tape of songs, which we used for a Parents and Toddlers service, and on it there is a song about the feeding of the multitude. It’s not as profound as the meditation I used earlier – but it is more memorable. The words go like this:

More than five thousand men plus their wives and kids -how could they feed so many?

I’d a hunch – use my lunch. Crunch, crunch, crunch, they ate my lunch!

 

Next time you find yourself looking at the food in front of you, and worrying about whether it is healthy or not; or whether it will help to extend your life span; or make you more attractive or fashionable – just remember the little boy on the hillside and his generous act. Think to yourself “crunch, crunch, crunch, they ate my lunch” and remember what God can do with you, just as you are, if you are prepared to offer yourself sacrificially. But most of all, remember the boundless generosity of God, and that what matters in God’s eyes is the way in which we imitate that – and that God doesn’t care one tiny bit what the giver looks like.

And thank God for it.

Amen.

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Take Time

(Ephesians 2, 11-22; Mark 6, 30-34 & 53-56)

turkey-sandwich

Do you like sandwiches? I like having them as a meal, because I don’t usually have to prepare them. Either we buy them, or my husband makes them, because his sandwiches are tidy and don’t tend to fall apart when you lift them up as mine do!

But what really makes a sandwich is the filling! We all have our favourites. Though I remember once curling up with embarrassment at an infant school Harvest Service when one of my children said their favourite was ‘banana and Marmite’; “Not in the same sandwich”, I wanted to add, as the other Mums all gave me strange looks!

Our Gospel reading today is like two parts of a sandwich without the filling.

We hear in Mark 6, 30-34 about the disciples returning from their first foray into ministry without Jesus, full of excitement; and how Jesus plans a time of quiet debriefing for them and a recharging of batteries in a desert place; but his plans are thwarted when the crowds arrive, hungry for spiritual and material food. Then, in verses 53-56, we find Jesus and the disciples again searching for a quiet space across the lake – but again being overwhelmed by the demands of the crowds seeking teaching and healing.

The ‘filling’ in the sandwich is Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5000, and Jesus walking on the water – miracles designed to show Jesus exercising divine control over the material world. You will get the flavour of that filling (and may well get very tired of it!) over the next five weeks, as the lectionary sets passages from John’s account of the feeding of the 5000 and the discourses on ‘The Bread of Life’ as the gospel readings for those Sundays.

Perhaps we may wonder why those who planned the lectionary gave us these two passages for this Sunday’s Gospel, the bread on the outside of the sandwich, rather than the more interesting ‘filling’. But the resulting passage does give us important pointers, both as individuals and as congregations, to the way we should exercise ministry in Christ’s name.

In our readings today we recognise many familiar features of Christian life and ministry.

In Ephesians we are reminded of the work of evangelism and reconciliation. May of you are involved in taking the Good News to people from many different classes and cultures in this locality and throughout the world, and some of you may also be involved in trying to build bridges between people from different religious and cultural backgrounds.

The passage from Mark is a snapshot of busy parish life. We hear of the disciples reporting on their mission activity, of Jesus reacting to the needs of his ‘flock’ and of the apostles and their master travelling from one place to another, meeting the spiritual and physical needs of those they meet. It gives the impression of lives full of activity, meeting the diverse needs of everyone who approaches.

What it doesn’t show is how this busy life of service and ministry is sustained, or how it is related to the will of God, or what is the cost of it.  Sometimes a busy life can be driven not just by a desire to serve others, but also by a need to avoid facing the big questions of life, even a need to avoid meeting with God, for fear of what that might mean to us.

About twenty years ago, I studied for a Masters Degree in Applied Theology. The course was open to anyone in any kind of Christian ministry, ordained and lay, whether working for the Church or in the secular sphere. One of the things we were taught was how to be ‘reflective practitioners’: how to take time out from the everyday practice of ministry to think and be self-critical, to read and study both the Bible and secular writers, in order to judge whether what we were doing was effective, how it could be improved, and whether it was what God would want us to be doing.  It taught me that being a good Christian minister did not necessarily mean filling every moment of the day with activity; the quiet times before God were an essential part of effective ministry too.

Of course, it is not always as easy as that. Every Christian minister will recognise the scenario in this passage of Mark. After a particularly busy time – Christmas or Easter, or even just the weekend – you are in desperate need of time to yourself, to unwind and to prepare for the next sermon or round of duties. But your carefully planned time disappears,  as the phone rings, people call at the door, and parish and domestic crises demand your attention.

And I am sure that people who are not in official ministerial positions find the same thing happens to them. Whatever good intentions they may have about regular time for prayer or Bible Study, other things intervene and they find their ‘time with God’ has disappeared.

One of the consequences of failing to take time out to reflect is that we stop listening to God. God can speak to us through other people, and especially through those we try to serve in Christ’s name; but God also speaks to us through the Scriptures, through the tradition, and in our times of prayer; and if we are so busy ‘doing good’ that we don’t have time to test our actions against those ways that God addresses us, the result can sometimes be that we take a wrong path; and sometimes that our bodies give out on us, or even lead us astray, into sin or addiction. Sometimes we can expend so much time and energy on building and maintaining a physical ‘temple’ or church for God that we forget that the real temples in which God dwells  are our own bodies.

That point is made in the passage from Ephesians, which speaks of the members of the church as citizens with the saints, members of the household of God, growing together around Christ the cornerstone into a holy temple in the Lord. That passage also reminds us of the ultimate cost of ministry – that our power to minister comes through the cross and the blood of Christ.

The Ephesians passage also reminds us that we exercise ministry together.  It is all to easy to imagine that we are the only people who are doing the work of God, and that if we re not constantly active, God’s purposes will not be fulfilled. But no one person can do everything. Paul often speaks of the church as a body, with different people exercising different, but equally essential functions. So, some people will preach, others will sing, others will beautify the building, others will maintain it; some will look after administration, some teaching, some care of the young and old, some will simply be available as a listening ear and a comforting arm. But all will need time out to listen for God’s word to them if they are to minister effectively in Christ’s name.

We don’t hear, in the passage that was read from Mark’s Gospel today, of how Jesus provides an example to us of the proper balance  between active ministry, and waiting on God. We simply hear of him being constantly available, showing, no matter how much he is interrupted and how often his plans have to change, the faithfulness and steadfast love that is characteristic of God his Father.

But in the missing ‘filling’ of the sandwich, in Mark 6, verses 45 & 46 we read: “At once, Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to Bethsaida, on the other side of the lake, while he sent the crowd away. After saying good-bye to the people, he went away to a hill to pray”. Those ‘times out’, of prayer and waiting on God, were the source of Jesus’ power, when he was renewed and filled again with the Holy Spirit. If we want to be his body on earth and to carry on his ministry, we must build occasions like this into our lives too, when we can be healed, taught and recreated in his image.

Of course, we will want to be busy about God’s work whenever we can. Preaching, and teaching, and worship, and discussion and pastoral care are the ‘bread and butter’ of the Church’s ministry. But unless we make time for God, to listen for the divine voice through reading and study, reflection and prayer, the ‘filling’ of our ministry sandwich will be without flavour, and will not nourish the people of God as it should.

This anonymous poem makes the point well, I think:

Take time to think;
 it is the source of power.


Take time to read;
 it is the foundation of wisdom.


Take time to play; 
it is the secret of staying young.


Take time to be quiet; 
it is the opportunity to seek God.


Take time to be aware;
 it is the opportunity to help others.


Take time to love and be loved;
 it is God’s greatest gift.


Take time to laugh;
 it is the music of the soul.


Take time to be friendly; 
it is the road to happiness.


Take time to dream;
 it is what the future is made of.


Take time to pray;
 it is the greatest power on earth.

R & R (Rest and Recreation) is an essential component of serving Christ well.

So, this summer – and regularly – make sure that you take ‘time out’ for God.

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Storm Tossed

Saga Ruby in Torshaven

( 2 Cor 6,1-13. Mark 4 35 – 41 )

 In the name of God, who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

 

Sometimes the Church of England lectionary appears to play strange tricks with those who preach.

 

As some of you will know, I  spend some of my holidays on cruise ships. We’re off on our first holiday aboard this year in a few week’s time, and here I am faced with preaching on the stilling of the storm. Is somebody trying to tell me something, I ask?

We’re sailing across the North Sea, which can be quite a rough crossing sometimes. I remember once when the ship was like the Marie Celeste in the morning as we went up for breakfast; almost everyone else was still in their cabins after a very choppy night. On the other hand, we’ve come back across the North Sea when it’s been so calm that we were sailing through thick fog, and a helicopter couldn’t get near enough to pick up a sick crew member to transport to the nearest mainland for treatment.

However, we’ve always been in a fairly modern cruise ship, with stabilisers, sea sick pills and medical attention to moderate the effects of the winds and waves. All of which made me appreciate just how brave were those explorers who set off in the tiny ships we’ve seen in the maritime museums in Scandinavia and Portugal, to discover new lands. We had comfortable cabins – they slept on the wooden deck. We had delicious food to eat – if we felt like it – and iced fresh water; their food and water gradually ran out or went bad on a long voyage. Our ship had engines, electronic direction finding equipment and stabilisers; they were entirely at the mercy of the winds and currents. Our ship had a steel hull – theirs was made of planks which gradually came apart during a long voyage, or were eaten from within by woodworm, so that if they did not reach land within a certain period, the ship simply disintegrated beneath them. We knew that we had 48 hours at the most to suffer the heaving seas; they often had no idea when they would reach land, nor what their reception would be when they arrived.

viking long boat

So no wonder that, in the world that our Bible was written in, the sea stood for danger, evil and chaos. Many of the peoples of antiquity, including at one time the Jews, shared a creation myth which said that the world was the result of God’s victory in a desperate contest with the forces of evil and chaos, which were identified with the waters of the sea. Just as demons who took up residence in the human body were believed to be responsible for physical or mental disease, so demons resident in the sea were believed to be responsible for the storms which destroyed life and property. The Jews were not a seafaring nation, and their literature, especially the Psalms, continued to use the image of unrestrained great waters, the sea or storms, as a metaphor for the evil forces active in the world.

The ability to control the waters, or to subdue storms, was believed to be a sign of divine power; and the ability to sleep peacefully in the face of such forces was a sign of complete trust in God. But when evil forces seem to triumph, the Psalms express this as ‘God being asleep’ and they urge God to wake up and rescue them.

It is against this background that we must read the story of the stilling of the storm in Mark chapter 4. Of course, this story may be based on a real incident in Jesus’ ministry. The Sea of Galilee, an inland lake, is situated in a deep rift valley, and sudden storms do blow up on the lake, and just as suddenly die down. But it is rather unlikely scenario that the disciples, whose number included at least four experienced fishermen, would have panicked, while the landlubber, Jesus, slept peacefully on. The story we have appears to have been shaped by constant retelling in the early church, and there are echoes in it of the Psalms, and particularly of the story of Jonah. Its present form clearly reflects its religious significance, as a story which showed who Jesus was, and the initial failure of his disciples to recognise him; and very probably indicates that it was retold to give encouragement to later Christians who were encountering opposition to their new-found faith.

At this distance in time, we do not know which of the details of the story are there for religious purposes, and which were details of the original story; for instance, the ‘other ships’ which set sail with Jesus’ boat, and then disappear from the story. Did they contain some members of the crowd who had listened to the parable of the sower immediately before setting sail? Or do they symbolise groups of converts whose faith founders when the storms arise, like the seeds in the parable that failed to bear fruit?

The storm is described in terms which echo Psalm 107 and the beginning of the story of Jonah. Like Jonah, Jesus is asleep while the storm rages: but whereas Jonah, the reluctant prophet, is asleep down in the hold of the ship, hiding from God, Jesus, God’s obedient servant, is asleep on the deck, with his head on the helmsman’s seat – even asleep, the story seems to say, he is in control. But the disciples (portrayed by Mark as men of little faith) mistake his calm for indifference, and arouse him with words that echo the complaints of the Psalmist to a seemingly uncaring God: “Lord, do you not care that we perish?”

fishing boat

Once awake, Jesus rebukes the demons of the sea in the same way that he has already rebuked unclean spirits several times, telling them to be silent. It is another exorcism. Then, he sadly reproves his disciples for their continuing lack of faith and trust in him. The disciples are then filled with a different kind of fear, and ask themselves again the question that is repeated throughout the first half of Mark’s Gospel; ”Who is this, that even the winds and waves obey him?”

The readers of the Gospel, in the post-resurrection Church, know the answer. He is the Christ, the Son of God, God’s agent in the salvation of the world. The story reassures Christians that, however much the Ark of the Church is buffeted by persecution and opposition, and however imperfect the faith of those who appeal to him, Christ will stand with them before the hostile forces arrayed against them, and bring them internal peace once more.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians provides us with details of the sort of troubles that the members of the early Church faced: beatings, imprisonment, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger, dishonour, poverty, death. In the face of all this, Paul quotes the promise of God: “At an acceptable time I have listened to you; on a day of salvation, I have helped you”. Christians were to expect a rough passage, say Paul and Mark; but Christians should always remain confident that God in Christ would preserve them from eternal harm.

This is a message that we also need to hear. In some parts of the world, especially the Middle and Far East and Sub Saharan Africa, Christians still face imprisonment, torture and death for their faith. We in the West are not persecuted in that way; but our religious life is not as straightforward as it once was.

Sometimes the Christian faith is presented as a passport to worldly comfort and prosperity. If only we are doing things right, if only we are obeying God’s commands, we will have a smooth passage, some Christian evangelists say. There is an implied promise that those who have faith will not suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Some of these evangelists also say that if we get it wrong, God is the sort of deity who will send natural disasters to punish us, and even innocent bystanders. Even today, that sort of explanation is seriously put forward to explain earthquakes, floods and tidal waves in various parts of the world.

That is far from being Mark’s message. He presents us with a Christ who is the Suffering Servant, the secret Messiah, who doesn’t apparently triumph over those who oppose him, but is destroyed. Mark challenges Christ’s disciples – and challenges us – to expect the storms, and expect to have to follow our Master into them; and to face what ever dangers that brings us with the same calm confidence he showed.

Mark gives us a picture of the church that is far from being a comfortable cruise ship with stabilisers and all mod cons; for Mark the church is a tiny boat, buffeted by storms, filling with water to the point of sinking, but a craft in which we can have confidence, so long as Jesus is at the helm.

Ship in harbor

I used to have a poster on my wall, designed by Argos communications, Christian publishers. The caption says: “a ship in a harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” That is a good message to take out with us, as we leave the harbour of this church and sail on this week, across the rough seas of the world, in the ship of faith.

Let us pray for Christ’s presence and protection as we sail (in a prayer by David Adam, that was sent to me by a friend when I was facing storms in my life) :

Circle me O God,

Keep peace within, keep turmoil out

Circle me O God,

Keep calm within keep storms without

Circle me O God,

Keep strength within, keep weakness out

Circle me O God

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Sent!

( Mark 6, 1-13)

(Short reflection for Breakfast Church)

In Mark’s account of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee, we hear how Jesus is decisively rejected the people of his home town.

 

But it doesn’t deter him. He simply moves on, to teach and preach and heal in other places, where he is made welcome, and where he can do some good.

 

And then he sends his disciples out, in pairs, to continue his work. I would imagine they must have felt quite daunted by this. If even Jesus himself was not always made welcome, what sort of a reception were they going to get?

He warned them that they might get the same hostile reception as him, and instructed them to do what he did – shake the dust of the place from their feet and move on.

 

And to make things even more difficult, Jesus insisted that they went without supplies, so that they had to rely on the hospitality of those they went to serve.

If they were to do his work, they had to learn, like him, to trust in God’s provision, and to accept the need to be dependent on others.

 

Two words to carry with us during the week from this reading:

 

The first is ‘sent’. Jesus knew himself to be sent by God to preach the Good News of the Kingdom: the news of healing, the news of acceptance, the news of forgiveness, the news of the love of God for all people.

Jesus sent his disciples out to spread the Good News more widely – and he sends us out too.

 

God is sending us out in his name this week – to different places, to serve different people. So, consider, where are you individually being sent? Where are you as a church being sent? And pray for obedience to God’s commission.

 

The second word is ‘dependence’. We live in a world of self-sufficiency and independence. We are supposed to be able to look after ourselves. Our society tends to look down on those who rely on others to meet their needs.

But that’s not the Kingdom way. In the Kingdom we rely on each other, we depend on each other, and often on those we are sent to serve.

So, consider, who do you depend on to meet your needs, to resource you to fulfil the task God sets you?

Who does this church rely on to meet the needs of the many people it serves? How are those who this church serves contributing to this church and this community?

And give thanks for all those on whom you depend, and pray for grace to resist the temptation  to carry out your vocation in your own strength and in your own way, rather than in God’s way.

 

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Mad or Bad?

(Genesis 3, 8-15; 2 Corinthians 4,13 – 5,1; Mark 3, 20-35)

 

Whenever we hear the news of some terrorist activity, or an act of mass killing, someone is bound to say: “How could they do that? They must be mad!”

 

If a person who commits such a crime is caught, before they can stand trial in modern legal systems there is usually a process to decide whether they are sane, and therefore can beheld responsible for their actions. The trial of Anders Breivik, who murdered members of the youth wing of a Norwegian political party in Oslo and Utoya Island three years ago, was not held to decide whether he was guilty, since he admitted that, and there was film of him doing it. It was to decide whether he is sane or not, whether he was mad or bad.

 

The same question “Is he mad or bad?” is being asked about Jesus in our Gospel reading today. Jesus’s family come to take him home, after hearing that his teaching and miracles have attracted huge crowds. They say he is ‘out of his mind’, and seek to take him under their protection. They are, in effect, maintaining that he is not responsible for his actions.

 

This is frequently said about religious people, especially those whose words and actions don’t fit the conventional mode. It was said initially about Joan of Arc, whose feast day the church celebrated a week ago, because she had visions which led her to dress up in male clothing, and lead an army against foreign invaders of her country. It was only when her efforts brought success that this charge was dropped by her countrymen.

 

There are some people who say that any religious person who claims to hear voices or see visions must be out of their mind. They are usually people who believe that the material world is the only reality there is, denying any reality to a spiritual realm beyond what we can see and touch. They have a point, when often the voices that people hear instruct them to do dreadful things. So, how are we to judge?

 

In our Gospel reading, the scribes don’t want to have Jesus judged as mad. They want to hold him responsible for his actions. They believe in a spiritual realm, composed of powerful beings, both good and evil. Their judgement is that Jesus is obeying the wrong spiritual beings, the evil ones rather than the good, Beelzebub or Satan and his demons, rather than God and God’s angels. They want him declared bad.

 

This happened to Joan of Arc too. When she was successful, she was hailed by the French Royal forces as sent by God; but when she was captured by the Burgundian forces, the allies of the invading English, they tried and convicted her of heresy, that is, serving the forces which opposed God.

 

After her death, and after the war between France and England was over, the trial verdict was reversed and she was declared a martyr (although she was not made a saint until the early twentieth century).

The resurrection and ascension of Jesus convinced many of his contemporaries that he was neither ‘mad’ nor ‘bad’, but doing the work of God on earth. Changes in social, religious and political circumstances did the same in the case of Joan of Arc. But how do we judge whether what we feel impelled to do by our religious beliefs comes from God or not? And how do we judge whether, when other people behave in strange ways in pursuit of their religious beliefs, are insane or evil?

 

Jean Pierre de Caussade (who wrote ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’) gave a simple rule of thumb for such judgements:

“The masters of the spiritual life lay down this principle to distinguish the true inspirations of God from those that emanate from the devil; that the former are always sweet and peaceful, inducing to confidence and humility, while the latter are intense, restless and violent, leading to discouragement  and mistrust, or else to presumption and self-will”.

 

The accusations of his family and the scribes lead Jesus to make his statement about the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. There has been endless debate about what exactly this means. The commentary on the readings I read suggested that the ‘unpardonable’ sin is to state with absolute conviction that the work of God is the work of the Devil, and vice versa. People who make such statements leave no room for doubts and rely totally on their own judgement. (This incidentally links with the origin of the term ‘heresy’, which came from a root meaning a division resulting from individual self-will).

 

We can see the mythical representation of that action in our Old Testament story from the beginning of the Book of Genesis. You don’t have to take the story literally to perceive the truth in it. The details are unimportant; the tree and the fruit are just symbolic of any actions of human beings (in other cultures the ‘fruit’ is translated as a pomegranate or a coconut, rather than an apple). It doesn’t matter whether the woman or the man made the first move towards disobedience, no matter how the story has been used since to deny women equality. Both Adam and Eve choose to follow their own desires, rather than listen to the voice of God.

 

One result is that the community they were created to inaugurate is broken. Rather than remembering their common origin as created by God, bone from the same bone, flesh from the same flesh, originating from and returning to the dust of the earth, the man blames the woman and the woman blames the snake. The unity of male and female and of human and animal kingdom is destroyed, with the disastrous consequences we still see.

 

The blame game we see portrayed in the Genesis myth is still being employed to create divisions in society, and to allow people to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions. Anders Breivik did this repeatedly. He wanted to be declared sane, but he didn’t want to be declared evil, so he blamed his actions on his victims: his hatred of Muslims on perceived slights to him in by Muslims in childhood, his opposition to immigration on the political party whose members he attacked. Those were his judgements alone, and he was claiming that his judgement is the only thing to which he owes allegiance.

 

Jesus always took responsibility for his own actions, at the same time as claiming that he did what he was sent to do by God. He came to assure everyone, both those inside and those who were outside his community, that they could receive the forgiveness of God for the sins they had committed and took responsibility for. He extended the meaning of ‘family’ to include those outside his own biological family; he expanded the meaning of ‘community’ to embrace even all those whom his own religious community excluded. His sole allegiance was to the Kingdom of God.

 

As we move from an emphasis on the life of Jesus during the seasons of Lent and Easter, into the season of Pentecost, we are faced with the challenge of how we follow Jesus, and how we are called to work to live out our allegiance to the Kingdom of God, and to building community in our own situations. Is our ultimate loyalty to Christ, and to his radical way of creating community; or is it to our own racial or religious community, or to our own biological family – or ultimately, only to ourselves?

 

It is not an easy challenge to accept, and no doubt we will find it difficult to make those decisions, and be faced with doubts, when perhaps, the path we choose seems to be going wrong. We will constantly have to return to the question: “Is what we (or others) are doing mad, or bad, or following the will of God?”

 

In his second letter to the Corinthians, (the New Testament reading set for today) Paul provides encouragement as we attempt to live our our allegiance to the Kingdom of God. He acknowledges that it can often seem a waste of time; that it can cause us pain; that it can look to others as if we are giving our loyalty to something that is a fantasy, because it cannot be seen, or proved scientifically.

 

But, he reassures us, what we are placing our faith in, and basing our judgements on, is ultimate reality, is eternal, and will endure far longer than any of the judgements of this world as to what is mad, or bad, or the will of God.

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Stones.

Sermon for Bereavement Service.

(Ecclesiastes 3, 1-8; Matthew 11, 28-30)

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Some of you may know the story of Oscar Schindler, the Czech /German business man, who saved over 1000 Jews from the gas chambers by employing them in his factories. Most of us know about him through the Steven Spielberg film, ‘Schindler’s List’.

The part of that film which I find most moving comes at the end, when it suddenly turns from black and white into a colour film. It is the scene showing the survivors of Schindler’s List and their children, placing stones on Oscar Schindler’s grave, after he had been declared by the State of Israel one of the ‘Righteous among the Nations ‘ – the Jewish equivalent of a Christian saint.

In placing stones as a symbol of remembering a person or an experience, those Jews seemed to be following an instinct that goes back a long way in human history. We read in the Old Testament of the patriarchs like Jacob, setting up stones to mark the places where they encountered God, or where significant people were buried. The Celtic peoples, too, followed the same custom. In Scotland, Wales and Ireland, you will find stones carved in the shape of crosses, marking sacred spots, and piles of stones, or cairns, often at the top of a hill, to mark the place where someone died climbing, or fell in battle.

Somehow the placing of stones seems to symbolise both the heaviness of remembering, and the necessity of letting go. So I want to suggest to you that today, you make in your mind a cairn, a mound of stones, in memory of the person you are here today to remember; and let each stone that you place represent some emotion that you may have experienced as you have mourned them in this last year or so. As you place each stone on your cairn, look at it, then ask God to share the weight of it with you and help you to let it go.

The first stone you lay down will undoubtedly be grief. If you lost your loved one fairly recently your stone of grief may be sharp, like this stone, and cause you pain as you handle it.

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Other stones may represent feelings that give you pain as you pick them up and look at them. These are the stones of painful memories, guilt, regrets for things done or left undone, things said or left unsaid. Many, many of us also feel anger at the death of people we love, especially if the death was sudden, or premature, or the result of accident or violence.

You may feel that rather than placing this stone quietly down, you want to throw it at someone – at the person you feel responsible for the death, at the doctors, at relatives and visitors who say the wrong thing, or even at God.

Don’t worry if this is how you feel; if you need to let your anger out at someone, God is far better able to receive it than most humans. A comforting story I once read tells of a man who went to hospital to visit his sick daughter, carrying a gift of a chocolate cake. When he got to the ward, he was told by the nurse that his daughter had suffered a relapse and died. In anger he went down to the hospital chapel, where earlier he had knelt to pray for his daughter, and flung the chocolate cake at the crucifix.

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Robert Llewelyn, who tells the story comments “May we not say that he who bore the nails found it not that difficult to absorb a chocolate cake. And it could be that in that little chapel there was poured out the resentment harboured secretly for so many years, and that God, who knows us so much better than we know ourselves, welcomed the outburst as breaking up hard and fallow ground, making it possible for the waters of healing to flow and the seeds of new life to germinate”.

These sharp and painful stones will probably be the first you set down, and will form the bottom layers of your cairn.

In the natural world, stones become smoother, like this one, worn down by water and contact with other stones. If it is longer since the person died, it is possible that your stone of grief may now be like this, not so sharp, worn down by the passage of time and the water of your tears. But you may still, from time to time, feel its heaviness in your heart.

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Other smooth but heavy stones will represent a number of emotions you may have felt in your time of mourning; perhaps anxiety or panic, numbness or restlessness, depression or fear. You may have been weighed down with tiredness, the experience of sleepless nights, a sense of helplessness or apathy; you may feel the heavy weight of loneliness, and the constant reminders of your loss as you go through familiar routines, and have to change your habits.

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We all experience bereavement differently, and some of you may now be past the time when these feelings weigh you down. Others of you will still be feeling them. But when you are able to let go of them and set them down, I hope you will find there will be other, lighter stones to place on top of them.

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Hopefully, among them will be bright and shining stones, like jewels which reflect light back to you. These stones represent the gifts given to you and skills taught by the one who is gone, and happy memories of experiences shared. These will be the stones which crown your cairn, and when they are placed there, you may be able to revisit your cairn, and see only them; and seeing them there, you may feel that you can leave your cairn, and turn from mourning into new life.

In our reading from Ecclesiastes, the preacher tells us that there is a time to collect stones, a time to build, a time to mourn; but that a time comes also to throw away stones, to laugh, to dance, to live again. Only you will know when that time is, when your cairn of mourning is complete.

You will need to choose in your imagination, where you build your cairn. For myself, I know that my cairn would need a firm foundation lest it collapse, and the stones hurt me again. So I would always begin my cairn in a place where I find Jesus – because as the Scripture tells us, Christ is the one sure foundation stone on which we can rely.

Christ says “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy stones, and I will give you rest “. Christ invites us to lay our heavy weights on his shoulders, and he will bear them with us; Christ invites us to build on him as we would on a firm rock; and he assures us that what we so build will never collapse around us. All these images tell us that God in Christ is not outside our grief and pain, but there in the middle of it, bearing the weight of it alongside us.

In a saying recorded in a gospel that is not part of our Bible, Jesus says “Lift up a stone, and you will find me”. As you lift the stones to build your cairn of remembrance, may you find there the Christ who gives us hope that death is not the end; who gives us faith that life is eternal; who gives us joy in the assurance that love lives on, and even death cannot erase it; and casting all your cares on Christ, may you find peace.

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