Thursday, 25 April 2019

Still Singing Hallelujah?

How do you top Easter Sunday?

This coming weekend sees ‘Low Sunday’ and the Vicar of our local Parish church told me, as we were having coffee together on Good Friday, that she won’t even preach a sermon this week as it’s a short service followed by their AGM!

I see that the lectionary reading from the Jewish Scriptures for Low Sunday is Psalm 150, the final one in the temple hymnbook. It’s part of the five so called ‘Hallelujah Psalms’ that bring the book to a close.

I find the presence of these praise songs right at the end of Psalms very encouraging.

The book of Psalms is a mixed bag.  There are psalms to be sung whilst on pilgrimage and others to be almost shouted at God in frustration and lament.  The songs reflect our lives in its ebb and flow.

So, how wonderful that come the end of this emotional journey the Psalmist, in numbers 146-150, still finishes by singing Hallelujah.

I’d love that to be my pilgrimage experience too – that no matter what comes my way in life I can still look to heaven and want to praise God.

I asked a cheeky question at the beginning of this Blog: How can we top Easter Sunday?

Of course, the truth is we don’t have to, because whether it’s April or August every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection and Hallelujahs are never out of place.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Easter Day: New Beginnings

Sunday just wasn’t meant to be like this. 

Resurrection is about the unexpected.

Good Friday had been a dreadful day for Jesus’ followers and it ended with a burial.

When I was growing up my journey to school meant that every day I walked through a cemetery.  Yet, when you’re young death seems so far off that my daily brush with tomb stones never really troubled me.

After Calvary the Jesus’ story is all about the tomb.  It’s a borrowed tomb, it has a stone to seal it and by Sunday women are drawn to it because graves and stones, tombs and memorials are all about endings and remembering.

That’s what this Sunday was meant to be about; making the best of it, catching a crumb of comfort that the struggle, even if it ended in defeat and failure was at least a struggle that was now over.  So, the women came to say it with flowers.

Well, at dawn it’s as if it all goes off script.  Resurrection is in the air.  The disciples sense the life of Jesus amongst them once again. Instead of a tomb sealed by a stone the gospels talk of an empty tomb.  No longer is this a memorial to a life snuffed out but a celebration of life to be lived.  It’s not the end of the story but the beginning of the next chapter.

And there are moments, thank God, like that in our lives too.  Moments when we thought we’d come to the end of the road; but then, maybe unexpectedly, seemingly from nowhere, a solution is found, a relationship is restored, new strength is gained and suddenly what we too thought was an ending has the touch of resurrection about it as the love of God and the life of the Spirit and the kindness of Jesus blesses our life once more with hope and new beginnings.

We might be praying for such moments this Easter Sunday – praying for a fresh dawn in the politics of our nation, in relationships within our families, in the spirit of our workplace or in the momentum of our church.

Today’s gospel gives us hope that fresh starts and new beginnings are possible.  What we once thought was inevitably coming to an end has turned out to be the Segway into the next chapter.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Holy Week Meditations: Holy Saturday: Mary

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a tough cookie.  How her life changed.

Initially we meet her as a young girl shocked to the core that she had been chosen to bear Jesus.  It’s a crisis and it never seems to end.  An out of the way birth followed by a refugee migration.  Maybe the early death of her husband and the infighting amongst her children as to the legitimacy of Jesus’ mission.

Yet, Mary is always there.  She’s there at the end.  When bold men like Peter have melted into the shadows, Mary stays close to Jesus.  Her loyalty, her love, her constancy – all an expression of tough love, deep love, love that never ends.

There is a juxtaposition of opposites at the cross.  Alongside the brutality and violence of nails hammered into palms, a spear that pierces his side, a crown of thorns that draws blood and the lingering death by asphyxiation that crucifixion brought there is also: the loyalty of Mary as she stays close, the companionship of John who stands alongside her and the kindness of Jesus as he entrusts the future of his mother to the beloved disciple.

Loyalty, companionship and kindness – expressions of love on a day marked by brutality, hatred and violence.

Down the centuries that juxtaposition has continued so that even in the bleakest moments those at the centre of the storm have been able to proclaim a belief in the sun even when it isn’t shining.

The essence, I believe of this day, is that in the suffering of Jesus we see God with us.  Immanuel is just as fitting a description of the cross as it is of the manger.  God is with us – in the pain, in the darkness, in the failure, in the agony of loss.  God is with us and that’s why even here as encounter Jesus, John and Mary we meet with loyalty, companionship and kindness on the most terrible of days.

Such love gives us hope and inspires us with courage.

Good Friday speaks into our life and calls us to believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining because God is with us – it’s the way of our Christlike God – it’s the way of the cross.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Holy Week Meditations: Good Friday: Penitent Thief

Strange way to become famous.  To commit a felony and be sentenced to death by imperial Rome, a death by crucifixion.  And then to find the day of execution was the same day, and the place of execution the same hill as those chosen for Jesus of Nazareth.

Strange way to become famous – to be crucified alongside Jesus.

But that’s the story of the Penitent Thief.  A life story we know hardly anything about except for its dying moments.  We don’t know his crime, his name or the finer details of the life he’d lived.  Yet we know something of his end.

This man doesn’t have to go through baptismal classes or recite a creed, he doesn’t need to become a church member or be confirmed.  There are no hoops for him to jump through, no formula of belief to which he must assent.

He simply asks that Jesus remember him. To which Jesus says: today you will be with me in paradise.

I suspect that many of us have more in common with the penitent thief than at first, we might imagine.

Perhaps like him we don’t view our faith journey as primarily a set of protocols through which we must pass. 

Often those protocols are good because rites of passage like baptism or expressions of belonging such as church membership have honourable intentions.

Yet, I suspect, there must be something else that draws us to faith.

I sense the thief saw something in Jesus that made sense to him.  And so, he asks that Jesus remembers him. 

I feel continually inspired and challenged by Jesus Christ.  I’m not sure that Christianity is so much about signing on a dotted line, or saying we understand pages of doctrine as much as it is being drawn to God, a God whose character was expressed in the life and death of Jesus.

As far as we know this thief hadn’t travelled on the road with Jesus.  The Sermon on the Mount had passed him by.

His encounter was brief and focused in mutual suffering.  They were executed together yet Jesus had to bear not just the brutality of the officials who hammered in the nails but also the taunts of the other thief.  The way he suffered, the way he bore that burden seems to have made the deepest impression upon the penitent thief.

This Lent a member of our congregation here at AFC has introduced me to one of his favourite hymns from the old Congregational Hymn Book.  The words are by the early 19th century poet Jean Ingelow and it’s her hymn: And dids’t thou love.

The hymn focuses on the idea that we see in Jesus’ character something of ourselves and maybe even the better person we could become.

Here are just a few lines:

And didst Thou take to Heaven a human brow?
Dost plead with man’s voice by the marvelous sea?
Art Thou his kinsman now?
O God, O Kinsman loved, but not enough;
O Man, with eyes majestic after death,
Whose feet have toiled along our pathways rough,
Whose lips drawn human breath:
By that one likeness which is ours and Thine,
By that one nature which doth hold us kin,

Love that line describing the likeness which is both Christ’s and ours – a sort of mutual kinship.

And maybe on this Good Friday we, like the Pentitent Thief look upon Jesus and we are inspired by his character, his longsuffering, his dignity.  It’s his humanity that touches us and in his dying something of his life blesses ours.

I suspect we have all been touched by the example of family, friends and colleagues who have faced suffering and sorrow with a dignity and courage that has inspired us.

Good Friday speaks into our life and says it’s sometimes at our weakest moments that our lives will send out the strongest message about the God we believe in  – it’s the way of our Christlike God – it’s the way of the cross.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Holy Week Meditations: Maundy Thursday: Pontius Pilate

Jesus is not the most talkative prisoner in the dock.

When asked if he was ‘The King of the Jews’ – which was, of course a subversive title that had strings attached, he simply bats it back to Pilate and says: ‘The words are yours’.

This trial is going nowhere and already has the stench of corruption about it.

Now fresh evidence is brought to court by the religious authorities.  In their eyes he is blasphemous, yet only the Roman Governor can pronounce the death sentence.  So, they connive with their occupying power to do away with this troublesome preacher from Nazareth once and for all.

In the face of all their accusations Jesus says nothing.  Pilate is astonished by his reticence to justify himself yet when prompted by the governor to mount a defence we are told by Matthew, ‘Jesus refused to answer a single word’.

Maybe he just knew the time for debate was long gone. 

What words would they put on the tombstone in St Paul’s Cathedral of the great architect, Sir Christopher Wren?  Set amid the soaring beauty of London’s new baroque House of Prayer, words seemed superfluous.  So, his son instructed they wrote this on his sarcophagus: if you are searching for his monument, look around.

Maybe there was a similar sentiment running through Jesus’ mind that prompted his silence.

Might he have thought: I don’t have to justify my message of good news.  Just look at my life.  The life I have lived, stretching out to those on the margins, speaking up for the poor and downtrodden, challenging the comfortable status quo – this is the life I have lived, this is the message I have lived.  I don’t have to justify my message of good news just look around you and see my life.

On Good Friday we meet a Jesus who stood before civic and religious leaders, a Jesus who did not shy away from conflict, a Jesus who challenged the way things were done, a Jesus who says faith is not just personal, it’s about the way we live in community – it’s a society thing – it’s a people thing.

Jesus was crucified because he spoke truth unto power.  He lived a life where the last became first and his sermons not only comforted the disturbed, they disturbed the comfortable.

This is the Radical Jesus and the Establishment couldn’t cope with him.
Good Friday speaks into our life and says it’s always right to work for a just and fairer world – it’s the way of our Christlike God – it’s the way of the cross.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

The Cross and ....?

The Church Yard at Cores End URC on the Saturday of our Quiet Day

As we met in Lent it seemed appropriate to me to focus the day at Cores End upon the cross.

In our first session I suggested that at various cross roads of his life Jesus deliberately chose the paths that would lead to conflict and suffering – he rejected easier ways. 

In our second session, when, as it were, we had already arrived at Calvary, I suggested that even whilst upon the cross the Lord Jesus chose the way of love and forgiveness in the face of hatred and violence.

So, where do the cross roads leads on our third session?

Well, I don’t know!  Because that is a question we must answer for ourselves.  So, maybe it is better framed as: Where do the cross roads lead me?

We have already quoted Sam Wells today, Vicar of St Martin’s, and in a number of his books he makes the same point again and again – that for him one of the most important things about his faith is a belief not so much in a God who does things ‘for’ us, as the God who is ‘with’ us.

For centuries one of the main ways of looking at the cross has been to see it as that moment when God did something ‘for’ us.  And for many that ‘atonement’ understanding of Good Friday is an important one.

Yet, and I think Sam Wells argues this with some conviction in his little book: Hanging by a Thread, the cross – representing so much of the chaos, failure, confusion and suffering of life, is also the place where God is essentially ‘with’ us.

Maybe, after all the words about how we can explain the relationship between a Good God and the presence of evil in the world – the only answer is to talk of the God who shares the suffering.

At St Martins much of the church’s time is spent working alongside homeless people.  It’s a church that is famous for its annual Radio 4 Christmas Appeal.

In his book entitled The Nazareth Manifesto, Sam Wells reflects on that demanding and seemingly unending ministry.  And once again he makes the point, that the starting place for every helper and worker at St Martin’s isn’t that they are doing something ‘for’ those who are homeless, but they come alongside them and stand ‘with’ them.  Of course, they may be offering professional and practical help – but the experience of those who work in the centre next to the church is that they, the workers, receive as well as give.

Years ago now, when I was a young minister and the BBC still had a lent course on telly – (seems like a different age!) – Charles Elliot, Director of Christian Aid presented a series called Sword and Spirit.  In one scene he was visiting the dust heaps of a South American shanty town.  Children were living on the rubbish heaps, scavenging for food.  Where, he asked, is God in all this misery and suffering?  The only answer he came up with, which – I think is the best he could have given, is that God is here, in the mess, here in the poverty, here in the pain.

Well, at times it may take some believing.  But I believe it is one of the most precious truths this season, so focused on the cross, can offer us.  The God who is with us and shares in our sorrows as well as dancing alongside us in our joys.

So, maybe in this final session we will be asking ourselves where the cross roads lead us.  Yet, we do that with this thought that the cross carrying God always accompanies cross carrying disciples.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

The Cross: Loving and Forgiving

The Quiet Day Group at Cores End 30th March 2019 where this talk was first given
At the beginning of Lent we travel with Jesus into the Wilderness and watch him deal with three choices at the end of forty days of fasting.  Will he turn stones into bread, will he bow down to Satan in order to reign over the kingdoms of the world and might he throw himself off the temple parapet in a spectacular show, trusting that God would send angels to soften his fall?

On every occasion Jesus chooses the way of love rather than power.

As Lent ends we’ll once more stand, as it were, at Calvary and hear those who mock Jesus as he dies upon the cross.  Once more temptation comes his way, this time from brutish by standers calling him to use power and come down from the cross.

As in the wilderness, Jesus stays put.  He does not short circuit his suffering – he endures it, offering forgiveness to those who beat him, hammered him, spat upon him and cursed him.  I’m sure that everything about him would have instinctively wanted to lash out against the injustice of it all.  Yet Jesus, at the Cross Road, consciously and deliberately chooses the way of peace and the offer of forgiveness in place of the hand of violence and the cries of damnation.

Jesus is horrified that Simon Peter cuts of the ear of the High Priest in Gethsemane’s Garden.  And upon the cross our Lord cries: Father forgive them, they know not what they do.

The cross is one of those moments when we see God, - when we see who God really is – the character of God expressed in the face and person of Jesus Christ.  At the cross we see forgiveness and encounter love. 

Jesus dies because, in love, he reached out to the marginalised and in doing so somehow scandalised his mission.  Eating with tax collectors, curing those with skin diseases, giving the woman at the well a new-found dignity – well, it undermined the rules civic and religious leaders laid down. 

Jesus preached outside the box.  He shows us love incarnate.  Look at the way Jesus lived, listen to his sermons and night time talks, look up and see not an empty cross but Jesus who hung and suffered there, and aren’t we left with the conclusion that love is simply, wonderfully and overwhelmingly in God’s DNA.
Yet there is nothing sentimental about all this.  It’s the hardest, most secure, yet most sacrificial love we could ever think of.

Incarnation came with a risk. In the end that upside down message of Jesus about the first being last, turning the other cheek and forgiving seventy times seven was publicly and utterly rejected by the authorities. 

The subtle temptation Jesus must have felt – much more nuanced I think than those recorded in the Wilderness, might have been to have watered down this gospel.  To collaborate with power.  Maybe we in the Church do that too often. 

The radical challenge of the Sermon on the Mount becomes a call for personal holiness rather than social transformation.

Jesus did not shirk from the risk of incarnation.  He kept walking to Jerusalem. 

At the cross road Jesus chose to speak truth unto power.

When he was crushed and bruised, this Man of Sorrows so acquainted with grief, dies uttering words of forgiveness and offering love to both the penitent thief beside him and his mother who so faithfully kept watch at the foot of the cross until he breathed his last.

Thank God love has a power to endure. In fact, I suspect that is the central message of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

In his book: Hanging by a Thread - Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin in the Fields, tells the story of a forgotten part of town by the canal.  Mabel and Arthur used to live there until they died in a gas explosion in the front bedroom of their home – their bodies were never found.  For thirty years this canal area became greyer and greyer full of vandalism, a no-go area, a left behind place.

One July a sunflower unexpectedly grew next to Mable and Arthurs derelict house.  It bloomed and suddenly there was colour.  At first people loved it, they walked taller.  But eventually it confused them.  This beauty – ironically – seemed to threaten them.  So, one evening a few of them tore down the sunflower and trampled upon it.  It was crushed, seemingly destroyed, done away with.

Yet its seeds were ripe.  In pulling the plant to pieces and treading it under foot those who wished to destroy the beauty had, in fact, released hundreds of ripe seeds around Mable and Arthur’s house.  Many had been trodden into the ground and next spring germinated.  The plants grew and at last there were flowers, dozens of sunflowers, upon Mable and Arthur’s grave.

Rob Bell has a book that says it all in the title: Love Wins.

I’ve been thinking recently of those two state funerals India held for two of its citizens that says so much – the state funerals of Gandhi and Mother Theresa.  Held, not to honour a president or a person of wealth but a man who owned nothing but a loin cloth and a woman who said she saw the face of Jesus in the sick of Kolkata.

Love wins.

At the cross road of Jesus life, as he took the risk of incarnation, Jesus chose love, sought peace and offered forgiveness.  Not a cheap love, but one worth dying for.

Friday 29th May 2020

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