Sunday, 17 August 2014

Being wrong; putting it right


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Our Gospel reading this morning is a very odd sort of story, isn't it? Here we have Jesus telling his disciples that what goes into your mouth doesn't matter, it's what comes out of it – what you say, even, perhaps, what you think – that matters. And then he goes and says something that everybody, certainly today and, I suspect, throughout a great deal of history, finds incredibly offensive.

Well, the first bit is easy enough to understand. Jews and Muslims both have very strict dietary rules, and believe that breaking them makes you unclean, and unfit to be in God's presence. And they also have strict rules about washing yourself before worship, being clean on the outside before, one hopes, being made clean within.

But Jesus was able to see, as his followers couldn't, that what you eat doesn't actually matter. Many of the rules – about not eating pig, or shellfish, for instance – made sense in an era where there was no way of refrigerating food. Eating them might give you a tummy-upset, but it wouldn't be the end of the world if you did. What goes into your mouth, says Jesus, eventually passes through and comes out the other end, but what comes out – well, that just shows what kind of a person you are!

And then a few days later – we don't know the exact date, that wasn't the kind of thing that the first gospel-writers thought important – a few days later he's off in a non-Jewish region, and he is so incredibly rude to the woman who comes begging for healing. What is going on?

Of course, the traditional explanation is that he was testing her. Well, that may or may not be the case, I don’t know, but it’s what people often say because it’s what they think Jesus is like.

The difficulty is, of course, that we can't hear the tone of voice he was speaking in. Did he snap at her, which is a bit what it sounds like? He had ignored her for some time until the disciples asked him to deal with her or send her away. Was he trying to be funny? I wonder how you “hear” him in your head when you read this passage, or one of its parallels.

I tend to hear him as being thoughtful, trying to work it out. You see, in the time and place when he was brought up, he would have learnt to assume that the Jews were God's chosen people, and nobody else mattered. Some things, it would appear, given the situation in Gaza today, never change. But the point is, Jesus didn't know any better, which I think today's Israelis ought to.

It might sound strange to say “Jesus didn't know”, because after all, He is God, he is omnipotent and so on. But we believe – or at least we say we do – that He is also fully human. Unlike the various gods and goddesses of Greek myth, he wasn't born already adult, springing fully formed from his father's forehead, or something. He was born as a baby.

Think about it a minute. A baby. Just like (if there's a baby in the congregation, point to it) or my younger grandson. My younger grandson is eleven months old, and just learning to crawl and to pull himself up to standing. And, of course, he has to learn what he may and may not play with, and what is and is not appropriate for him to put in his mouth – although he is beginning to outgrow that habit. And I bet Jesus had to do the same. He will have chewed on Mum's wooden spoon when his teeth were coming through, and when he was of the age to put everything in his mouth – and later, he will have discovered that it makes a lovely noise when you bang it on the table, and have to learn that not everybody enjoys that noise!

And so on. He had to learn. We are told he grew in learning and wisdom. Remember the time when he was a teenager and got so engrossed in studying the Scriptures that he stayed behind in the Temple when everybody else had packed up and gone home – and then, when his parents were understandably cross, he said “Oh, you don't understand!” Typical teenager – and, of course, Jesus was learning the whole time about the Scriptures, about who God is, and, arguably, maybe a tiny bit about who He was.

And here, perhaps, he is learning again. We can't rely on the Gospel-writers' timelines, they tend to put episodes down when it suits their narrative. And here is Jesus, perhaps having slipped away for a few days' break into Tyre and Sidon, where he was less likely to be disturbed than in Galilee. And then this woman comes and will not go away.

We don't know anything about her, other than that she was a foreigner – Mark says she was Syro-Phoenician, Matthew, here, calls her a Canaanite. Either way, she was basically Not Jewish. An outsider.

You know, the Bible is full of stories about outsiders coming to know and trust Jesus! Just off the top of my head you have the centurion whose servant was healed, the other centurion who Peter went to after his dream to tell him it was okay to do so, and the Ethiopian treasury official. Oh, and Onesimus, Philemon's slave. Philemon himself, come to that, but I think by the time the letter was written, it was becoming more widely accepted that non-Jews could be Christians, as well as Jews.

But at the time, these people were outsiders. No good Jew would have anything to do with them. And Jesus ignores the woman, until his disciples ask him to get rid of her. And even then, he doesn't heal her daughter. Instead, “It's not right to take the children's meat and give it to the dogs!”

But I wonder. Do you remember the wedding at Cana, which we are told is his first recorded miracle? And his mother came to him and said “Disaster! They've run out of wine!” His first reaction was basically, “So what? What's that got to do with me?” but then he went and got the servants to fill those huge amphorae and the water turned into wine. He changed his mind. His first reaction was not to do anything, but if there is one thing he appears to have learnt, it is to listen to the promptings of the Spirit.

And in this case, too. The woman, consciously or not, said exactly the right thing: “But even the puppies are allowed the crumbs that fall from the children's table!”

And to Jesus, that was God's answer. Yes, he could and should heal this woman's daughter. So he did. With the comment that right then, her faith was probably greater than his!

You know, the first time I heard this sort of interpretation of this story, my immediate reaction was “No way!” Jesus couldn't be like that – he couldn't have got things wrong! You may be thinking the exact same thing, and I really wouldn't blame you!

But, you know, it wouldn't go away. Like a sore place in one’s mouth, or something, I kept on thinking about it and thinking about it.  Why was this so totally alien to my mental image of Jesus?

Then I realised that, of course, it was because I was confusing “being perfect” with “never being wrong”.  There’s a difference between being mistaken and sinning!  And, as I said, Jesus had to be born as a human baby, to learn, to grow. And he may well have learnt, consciously or unconsciously, that as a Jew, he was one of the Chosen, and thus superior to everybody else. But he had already learnt, as we found in the first part of our reading, that keeping the Jewish Law wasn't what made you clean or unclean – so perhaps it wasn't such a huge leap to discover that being Jewish or not didn't actually matter. God still loved and cared for you, whoever you were.

And in the end, I found this thought very liberating.  It made Jesus far more human.  I realised that, while I had always paid lip-service to the belief that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, in fact, I’d never really believed in his humanity!  For me, he had always been a plaster saint, absolutely perfect, never making a mistake, never even being tempted.  I realised I’d envisaged him overcoming those temptations the gospel-writers talk about with a wave of his hand, not really tempted at all.  But, of course, it wasn’t like that!  St Paul tells us that he was tempted “in every way that we are”, and if that doesn’t include really, really, really wanting to do it, then it wasn’t temptation!

But if Jesus could be mistaken, if he sometimes had to change his mind, if being perfect didn’t necessarily mean never being wrong, then that changed everything!  Suddenly, Jesus became more human, more real than ever before.  The Incarnation wasn’t just something to pay lip-service to, it was real.  Jesus really had been a human being, with human frailties, just like you and me.  He had had to learn, and to grow, and to change.  Suddenly, it was okay not to get everything right first time; it was okay not to be very good at some things; it was okay to make mistakes.

And, what’s more, it meant that the Jesus who had died on the cross for me wasn’t some remote, distant figure whom I could aim at but never emulate, but almost an ordinary person, someone I might have liked had I known him in the flesh, someone I could identify with.

As I have frequently said, these Sundays in Ordinary Time are when what we think we believe comes up against what we really believe. Do we really believe that Jesus, as well as being divine, was also human? Do we think of him as having had to learn, to grow, to change. Do we think of him as having made mistakes, having to change his mind, having to – to repent, if you like, since that basically means changing one's mind because one realises one is wrong?

And if that is so, if Jesus is not some remote plaster saint, but a human being just like us – how does that change things? How does that change our relationship with Him? And how does it change things when we make a mistake?


Sunday, 10 August 2014

Waving or Drowning


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If you wish to read the text of this sermon, please click here. It is very nearly the same, just one paragraph in the middle changed.

Little brothers - a children's talk


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Well, that was not a very nice story, wasn't it? I don't know how well you know the story of Joseph, and I'll be going into a bit more detail in a little while, but what you need to know is that he had ten older half-brothers, and one younger full brother, and his father loved him very much. I'm sure he loved the older brothers, too, but he was a bit silly about Joseph and made him a special coat, which none of the others had. And Joseph had dreams about his family bowing down to him, and because he was a bit spoilt, he told all these to his brothers, and infuriated them! And in the end his brothers took action to make him disappear.

Do you have a little brother or a little sister? They can be a right nuisance sometimes, can't they, especially when they are naughty and you get into trouble for it. Like when they snatch your toys and insist on playing with them, and you get told to share nicely..... I dunno. My family all tell me that having a big sister is horrible, too – I wouldn't know because, you see, I was the big sister, and of course I was lovely – well, some of the time. But no matter how infuriating my brother and sister were – and trust me, your younger siblings don't stop being infuriating at times even when you're my age. Do they? Anyway, no matter how infuriating they can be, we wouldn't really want to get rid of them, would we? Not seriously, not like Joseph's brothers did. Of course, when we get really, really angry with them and scream “I hate you, I hate you!” at them, at that moment we might wish they didn't exist, but not most of the time.

But being angry can hurt a person! Jesus tells us not to be angry with people in a destructive way, putting them down and calling them a fool and an idiot, even if they are. Well, Jesus doesn't actually say even if they are, he says firmly not to do it at all. So what can we do when we get really, really, really angry with our brothers, or our sisters for that matter? We aren't allowed to leap on them and bash their heads on the floor, no matter how much they deserve it. All we can really do is go and hit a pillow somewhere and tell God all about it. God understands – after all, they wouldn't have put this story about a seriously irritating younger brother in the Bible, otherwise. The thing is, you can always tell God about how you're feeling, even when you're absolutely incandescant with rage. God always understands. Amen.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

God gets involved

This is similar, but not identical, to the sermon I preached on this Sunday three years ago.
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Two weeks ago, when I was last with you, we looked at the story of Isaac and Ishmael, and we saw how God was with Ishmael and his mother Hagar, even in the middle of the desert when all hope seemed lost. I don't know what you looked at last week, but if I'd been here, I'd have been talking about what's called “The binding of Isaac”, when Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, but God sent a ram just in time – did you know, because I didn't until I began reading around for these sermons, that Muslims think it was Ishmael who was nearly sacrificed, not Isaac? Or some do. And now, this week, we come to a nearly-grown-up Isaac, and his search for a wife.

Scholars seem to think that these stories of Abraham, which had been an integral part of the Jewish tradition, were collected together and written down during the 5th and 6th centuries BC –this, you remember, was when the Israelites were in exile, the Temple had been destroyed, and they had no king of their own. Only a very few Israelites were left in Jerusalem, and they had rather lapsed from their traditions and practice. So the various stories were collected and written down, possibly somewhat haphazardly, in case it should all be lost.

Abraham himself is thought to have lived in the early part of the 2nd millennium BC. Apparently the earliest he could have been born was 1976 BC and the latest he could have died was 1637 BC. This was in the Bronze age –he would have had bronze tools, not iron, and possibly still a flint knife.

When Robert and I were in Italy a few years ago we visited the town of Bolzano, where they have the museum where the body of Oetzi, the ice-man, is stored. You may remember that he was found in the Alps about 20 years ago, having been preserved in a glacier for over 5,000 years. The point is, this was even longer ago than Abraham – he only had a copper axe, as they hadn't discovered about bronze yet. But the things that were found with him – his axe, his coat, his trousers, his bow and arrows, his knife and so on, you could see just how they were used, and he was really a person just like you or me! That makes Abraham feel less remote, as he, too, would have worn clothes we recognise, and carried tools we'd know and so on.

Abraham had felt called by God to leave his home-town of Ur in the Chaldees, which in his day was allegedly highly civilised. They had, apparently, nineteen different kinds of beer and a great many fried-fish shops, if you call that being civilized! However, they did enjoy other kinds of food, such as onions, leeks, cucumbers, beans, garlic, lentils, milk, butter, cheese, dates, and the occasional meal of beef or lamb. Just the sort of food I like!

There was wine available, to make a change from beer, but it was expensive, and drunk only by the rich. They played board-games, enjoyed poetry and music, which they played on the lyre, harp and drum, and were generally rather well-found, from all one gathers.

The only thing was that without many trees in their part of the world, they had to do without much furniture, and tended to sleep on mats on the floor, for instance, instead of beds. But definitely a sensible and civilised place in which to live. When you hear it described, it doesn't sound all that remote, does it? They were people like us, and had similar tastes to us.

But Abraham had felt called to leave there, and to take his family and household and to live in the desert. And they had all sorts of adventures, and sometimes things went very wrong, but mostly they went all right.

And now Isaac has grown up and Sarah has died, and it is time for Isaac to marry. Abraham is urgent that he marry a woman from his own tribe, not a local Canaanite woman, who wouldn't have known about God, so he sends his servant back to Ur, to find a suitable relation for Isaac to marry.

The servant explains, rather earnestly, how he asked God to show him which the right woman was –would she offer to draw water for his camels, or not? That wasn't an easy task – camels, which can go four or five days without water, like to drink A LOT at one time, so she'd have needed a fair few bucketsful!

Rebecca's family would have liked a few days to get used to the idea, but the servant says he needs to get back as soon as possible, and Rebecca agrees to leave next day. So she and her various maidservants – one of them may have been her old nurse – got packed up and ready, and set off. And eventually they get home safely, and there is Isaac coming to meet them. And they get married, and live more-or-less happily ever after!

We sometimes get alarmed about arranged marriages these days; we know that in those communities where they're still more-or-less the norm, things can go horribly wrong – think of those so-called “honour killings” we hear so much about! Even in this day and age, it isn't always easy for someone to escape an abusive situation if they don't know where to go. But as I understand it, an arranged marriage can be every bit as happy and as successful as one where the bride and groom have chosen one another; we all know that you have to work at being married, whether you knew your husband for years beforehand or whether you met him a few days or weeks before the wedding – or even at the wedding!

I think Rebecca was very brave going off with Abraham's servant like that; she had no way of knowing who or what was awaiting her at the far end of the journey. The servant had bigged up Abraham's – and thus Isaac's – wealth, and had given her lots of gold jewellery, but was he telling the truth?

But one thing stands out about this story and that is that God was involved from beginning to end! And God led them all to a happy ending.

I wonder how much we actually believe that God is really involved in our lives? I know we say we do, but these Sundays in Ordinary Time are very much places where what we think we believe tends to come up against what we really do believe! After all, not all of our stories have happy endings, do they? Some do, many do, and for these we give thanks, but what happens when they don't? Does God get involved in our lives? And if so, how does this work, and how can we work with God to ensure a happy ending?

Well, the Bible definitely tells us that God is involved in our lives, and I am sure most of us could tell of moments when we were perfectly and utterly sure of this. But equally, most of us could tell of moments when we really struggled with it! Where was God when this or that bad thing happened? Does God really care? We thought about this a bit two weeks ago when we looked at Ishmael and Hagar in the desert. And we found that God was there with them, even though it hadn't felt like it.

Many of us have lived through enough bleak times to know that one comes out the other side. We know that, when we look back, we will see God's hand upon it all. God may not have led us to a happy ending, exactly, but we can see how God has worked all things together for good for us.

It's not a matter of God waving a magic wand and producing the happy ending we want; we all know God doesn't work like that. And it's not a matter, either, of God having set the future in stone so that nothing we can do can change things. Nor is it a matter of God simply sitting back and letting us struggle as best we can, although everybody feels at times that this is what is happening.

It's more as if God is working with us, moment by moment. Sometimes we – or other people – do things that mean the situation can't come out as God would have wished. God has a detailed plan for creation, but his plan for our individual lives isn't – can't be – mapped out in moment-by-moment detail since we are free to make our own choices. But God truly wants the best possible life for each one of us. The idea, I think, is to stay as close to God as possible, trying to be aware of each moment of decision and what God would like for us to do.

But, of course, as St Paul points out in the letter to the Romans, that isn't actually possible! We're a bit crap at actually doing the right thing, no matter how much we know we want to! It was impossible for Paul to keep the Jewish law in its entirety, no matter how much he wanted to. And although we know we're, and I quote, under grace not under the law, we do tend to find it easier to try to follow a set of rules and regulations than to follow Jesus! And, of course, we don't follow those rules and regulations perfectly – how could we?

But Jesus points out that his burden is light! Sometimes we don't feel as though it is. “Come unto me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest!”

I am sure Abraham's servant must have felt incredibly burdened when he went back to Ur to find Rebecca. But the servant, at least, spent his time moment-by-moment in God's presence. He trusted that God would lead him, step by step, to the right woman and that God would bring the whole journey to a happy conclusion. “Come unto Me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest!” Abraham's servant trusted God.

I wonder how much we trust God? It isn't always easy, is it? Last week's story, how God asked Abraham to kill Isaac, was very much about trust. Abraham didn't even argue with God – he just went ahead and did as he was told, leaving it very much up to God to do the right thing! Even Isaac didn't struggle – he was a young man at that stage, not a small boy, and he could easily have overpowered his elderly father. But no – he allowed himself to be bound and laid upon the altar.And God did do the right thing, as it were, and produced the ram.

And now God did show the servant his choice of wife for Isaac. And so was born the Kingdom of Israel. We never know the consequences of our choices – they may be far more far-reaching than we expect. But we do need to practice involving God in our everyday lives, otherwise, when the crunch comes, we'll find it much harder than it need be to rely on him. “I will give you rest,” says Jesus, but if we don't know how to come to him for that rest, how can he give it to us? Amen.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Isaac and Ishmael


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I wonder how old you were when you first heard the story of Isaac and Ishmael. I can't have been more than 6 or 7 when it was part of my primary school Scripture curriculum. Of course, as a child you only notice the superficial parts of the story, and I don't think I've ever looked at it in any great depth before. But it's an important story, because it echoes down to this day.

So, then, Ishmael. The older child. The one Abraham conceived on his slave girl, Hagar, because he didn't see how else he was going to have a child – Sarah, he thought, was long past child-bearing. Hagar and Sarah didn't really get on – Sarah had been very jealous of Hagar when Hagar was carrying Ishmael, and Hagar, one gathers, hadn't exactly helped by showing she rather despised Sarah. Hagar had had to run away from Sarah when she was pregnant, but the Lord had come to her and told her to go back, and that he would make a huge nation from Ishmael.

And the years went by, and they all had loads of adventures which you can read about in Genesis, including fleeing from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and finally Sarah becomes pregnant and Isaac is born. And now Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac – some translations say he was playing, others that he was teasing or tormenting or mocking him, and we have no way of knowing what he actually was doing. He may even have been doing both – started off by playing, but unable to read Isaac's body language to know when he'd had enough, and ended up with Isaac crying, and Ishmael laughing at him, the way young people do with very small children.

And Sarah is absolutely furious. This had been a special party, to celebrate Isaac's weaning – he would have been somewhere between 2 and 4, I think, rather like Samuel was when he was taken to the Temple. Anyway, this special party, and now Ishmael has upset the boy and made him cry. Is it always going to be like this? And what if Ishmael really meant to harm Isaac?

You can understand Sarah's anger and concern, of course. She is well old to have a small child to look after, and this older half-brother is always going to be perceived as a menace. So for the second time she demands that Abraham send her away, and, heavy-hearted, he does so.

God tells him not to be too upset – his promise is to go through Isaac, but Ishmael is also Abraham's son, and so he, too, will father a vast nation. Ishmael is about 16 at the time. We know, because we are told he was 13 when they were all circumcised, and that was about a year before Isaac was born, so if Isaac is around three, Ishmael has to be 16. But the story makes him sound as though he was younger, and still very dependent on his mother.

Anyway, Abraham loads up a backpack for Hagar, and sends them both off. And they appear to have no idea what to do next, so wander rather aimlessly around until the water runs out. And then when Hagar is despairing, Ishmael resting under the one and only bush, God intervenes, and miraculously provides a well, or a spring, so they are saved.

According to some Muslim traditions, Paran, where they settled, is identified as Mecca, which is one of the reasons why it is a holy place for Muslims today. Because, of course, Ishmael is the father of the Arab nations.

I am not going to go into details about which tribes he fathered and which he didn't – the sources are unclear and nobody seems to really know. However, tradition has it that he had twelve sons, all of whom became tribes, and their descendants are, of course, the modern-day Arab nations.

Actually, you know, that's really depressing! Because if there has not been peace between them ever since, how many millennia is that, and what hope is there for peace today? People don't change! The tribes of Ishmael and the tribes of Isaac have never been able to live in peace. Just pick up your newspaper or go online and look at the BBC headlines. A lot of what is happening in present-day Israel doesn't get reported by the BBC, but I have a friend who keeps an eye on things and she often posts news stories on her Facebook page that don't make happy reading. The tribes of Ishmael are still outcast in today's Israel.

And elsewhere, as the news bulletins make horribly, painfully clear, they are divided among themselves. The awful situation in Syria, which is leaking out into its neighbours. It's too ghastly – there simply isn't an easy solution to be found. At least we can pray for the situation there – I hope you do pray for Syria, because the more of us who pray for her, the better. It's an impossible situation – but then, we believe that nothing is impossible with God!

So it's all very depressing, and it's a depressing story for a summer morning, isn't it? I wonder what, if anything, we can learn from it.

One of the things I do like about the story is that it shows the people concerned to be real human beings, with human faults and failings. Many ancient myths and stories depict the people involved as in some way super-human, all too perfect, or with amazing super-powers that they can call on in time of need. Genesis doesn't. The people here are human, they have human problems and human failings.

We can empathise with Sarah, I think. At least, I can. We can't, and shouldn't, excuse her behaviour – she was wrong to cast them out like that, and I expect she knew it. But we can understand why she felt the way she did, and why she reacted the way she did. She obviously had a huge problem with jealousy, and if Hagar was youngish and pretty and, above all, fertile, while she, Sarah, wasn't.... well.... And then with Ishmael playing with, or teasing, or mocking – according to your translation – the 3-year-old, who may have been over-tired after the party.... you can see where she was coming from. And she wasn't having “that bastard” inherit any of Abraham's wealth, thank you very much.

And Abraham, too. He has proved himself far from perfect – read some of the stories about him in Genesis when you have a moment. He twice introduces Sarah as his sister – she was, in fact, his half-sister – instead of clarifying that she was his wife, and nearly led important people into sin. And he didn't believe God that Sarah could have a child, which is how come Ishmael was conceived in the first place. But at least here he shows himself unwilling to let the family go. And he gives Hagar a backpack of food and water, and relies on God's promise to look after them.

And God does look after them, we are told. They were thrown out for no fault of their own, they were facing almost certain death in the wilderness, and then God was there, in the middle of the mess, providing water for them and ensuring their survival.

And because God intervened, Ishmael went on to become the father of many nations, just like his brother. Yet Ishmael wasn't the child God had originally planned for Abraham and Sarah, and his sons were not to be “the chosen people”, although I daresay our Muslim friends would disagree with us on that one! But God still looks after him. God is there, in the middle of the desert. God is there, in the middle of the injustice and unfairness that caused Ishmael and his mother to be cast out. God is there in the thirst and the heat and the despair.

And that is true for us, just as it was true for Ishmael. Ishmael was not a child of the covenant, but God still cared for him. The people of Syria, many of them, are not children of the Covenant – although there is a very strong Christian tradition there, too. But God still cares for them. We ask where God is in the middle of the Syrian disaster. We ask where God is in the middle of the brutal treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis. We ask where God is in the middle of our own personal tragedies.

And the answer is the same as it always was. God is there, redeeming us, in the middle of unfairness and injustice and tragedy.

Perhaps you are suffering that way today – in a desert place where it feels as though God has abandoned you, and certainly everybody else has, and that you are going to die of thirst any minute. I don't mean literally, obviously, but there are times when it does feel like that, doesn't it? And yet God is always there. Sometimes God does intervene to improve matters. Other times, perhaps more often, things don't actually improve, but God gifts us with the skills and grace we need to cope with them. Hagar and Ishmael went on living in the desert, but they learnt how to do this on their own.

God never abandons us. When we call on him, he is there. Sometimes it doesn't feel like that – sometimes we really do feel abandoned, and that our calls are just echoing back from an empty sky. But that is only what it feels like, not what has happened. I don't know why it sometimes seems to take God forever to answer our calls – I'm sure there are plenty of good reasons we'll learn about in Heaven – but I do know he does answer. Sometimes “Be patient, be strong!” is the only answer – but the strength and the patience grows.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is not a happy story. But it does have one happy and shining outcome – God was there with them in the desert. And God is with us in our personal deserts, and in the global crises and tragedies of today. God is with us. Emmanuel. Amen.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Trinity Sunday 2014

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 Today is, as you will have gathered, Trinity Sunday. It's a sort of last hurrah between the end of the special seasons, which came to their climax last week at Pentecost, and the endless weeks of Ordinary Time that will run between now and Advent, way off at the end of November.

So we had Advent last year, then Christmas, then Epiphany, and then a few weeks of Ordinary Time as Easter was due to be late, then Lent, then Easter, and recently Ascension and then last weekend Pentecost. And now Trinity Sunday. All the other special seasons are either about, or preparing for, significant events in Jesus' life, but Trinity is a bit different.

The concept of the Trinity isn't really found in the Bible – the bit about doing things in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is as near as it gets. It's really the early church's efforts to put things into words that don't really go. They knew, as we know, that the Father is not the Son or the Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. But the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet we don't have three Gods, we only have one God.

That's basically what it's about, but it's very confusing. And the trouble is, most illustrations simply don't give you more than a tiny glimpse of it, if that. You can, for instance, say think of three tins of soup – maybe you have lentil soup, mushroom soup and chicken soup, which are all different but all soup. But that doesn't really help, as soup is soup, and whatever flavour you drink. Some people like to think of an egg – the yolk, the white and the shell. Or an apple – the core, the flesh and the skin.

My own preferred illustration is of water, ice and steam – all H2O but very different from each other and used for different purposes. Water is not ice, and water is not steam; ice is not water, and ice is not steam; steam is not water and steam is not ice. But water is H2O, ice is H2O and steam is H2O. Water is about drinking and washing; ice is about skating and cooling injuries. Oh, and cooling drinks, too, of course. And steam is about clearing your head when you have a cold, and showing you that the kettle is boiling.... So it is quite a good illustration.

But even that is merely a tiny glimpse of what the Trinity is all about. Maybe we shouldn't even try to explain the Trinity – it's what's called a mystery, meaning that while we can get a good working image of what it's all about, we know that it isn't more than an image and our conception may well change over time. We'll never know exactly what it's all about, because we are not God!

But, as St Paul points out, we can think of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit! That makes it easier, I think. We might not understand how we can have three Persons, as the technical term has it, in one God, but we can understand a little about the Grace. We will close this service, as we close so many services, by wishing one another God's grace in these very words.

I wonder, then, what we are actually wishing each other. Again, when you start to unpack it, it isn't as easy as it looks. After all, what, exactly, does “Grace” mean? We think we know – we have a working model of it – but again, it's one of those concepts that really doesn't go into words, as so many of the things of God don't. Oh, we say glibly that it's “God's riches at Christ's expense”, and of course that is very much part of it, but it's only part of it. Grace is about all that Christ gives to us in the package we call “salvation”. We can't earn grace, we can only accept it as a freebie. It is everything that Christ poured out for us on the Cross. And it is that that we pray for one another!

And then Love. Again, how can we put this into words? We know what love means – we think. But then, we love strawberries and we love our children and we love our spouses or partners, and it's not the same sort of love, is it?

If you want a general definition of love, one can say it is the condition whereby the happiness and safety of the beloved is of greater concern than your own. The happiness and safety of the beloved is of greater concern than your own. That, of course, can't apply to strawberries! And I would have difficulty in applying it to our love for God, I think, wouldn't you?

But I have no difficulty whatsoever in applying it to God's love for us. God's love for us is quite beyond our imagination. It is constant, unremitting. God loves each and every one of us as though we were unique. It doesn't matter who we are, or what we have done, or whether we serve Him or not – God loves us. In a way, our prayer ought to start with the love of God, for it is from that love that the rest stems. If God didn't love us, he would not have sent Jesus, nor the Holy Spirit.

Some of us here this morning have children, maybe grandchildren. Anybody have great-grandchildren? Well, I don't know about you, but I do remember that when my daughter was born, I began to have a glimpse, just a tiny glimpse of what God's love for us is like. That was a very long time ago, and I am a grandmother now, but I still remember it. That realisation that this, this is something a tiny bit like how God cares for me! Amazing!

So, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and then, of course, the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Some translations say the Communion of the Holy Spirit. You notice it's “of” the Holy Spirit, just as it is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God. The Holy Spirit sends, among other amazing things, fellowship, communion. Both with God and with one another.

Yes, of course, we are friends. And there are always going to be people in the church we are more friendly with and less friendly with, if that makes sense. But by our very human nature, we're going to like some people more than we like others. That's okay. But we are given the gift of having fellowship with everybody in the Church, whether we like them or whether we don't. We can sit beside them in worship, we can pray for them and their concerns, we can lift them to the Throne of Grace. And that is the gift of the Holy Spirit here.

And we can also have fellowship with God. That sounds even more amazing, doesn't it? Fellowship with God himself, the Creator. The Father – Jesus said to call God “Father”, and what better day to remember it as it's Fathers' Day. But I know that isn't helpful to everybody, if they have had a poor relationship with their own father, for instance. You may prefer a totally different name for God, and that's okay, too – and often, your preferred name for God changes as you travel along your Christian journey.

We know the Old Testament was full of different names, from the plain basic “El” that meant “The Lord” – you still get this in names like “Michael” or “Rachel” or “Gabriel”, or any of those Bible names that end in “El”. They all mean something about God – Michael, for instance, means “Who is like God?”, which is a rhetorical question because nobody is! Gabriel means “Strong man of God”, and so on..... Anyway, names for God – the plain basic “El” that I mentioned, and then a lot of other ones – shepherd, judge, redeemer, king, rock. Or there is “El Shaddai”, which has several different possible meanings, including God the Destroyer, or even God with breasts – but is mostly used to mean God Almighty.

And talking of God with breasts, there are a few feminine names for God, which you may or may not find helpful, including Lady Love, and Lady Wisdom. Some people refer to the Holy Spirit as “She”, on the grounds that the Hebrew word, Ruach, is feminine. Do so if you find it helpful, but if it irritates you or feels gimmicky, then don't.

I seem to have wandered rather far from “The fellowship of the Holy Spirit”. But today isn't really a day for understanding, you see. It's much more of a day for rejoicing. Someone years ago said it was a day to celebrate the whole Godness of God, and I rather like that definition. We will never even begin to understand who God is, and that's okay. We know that we have a loving Father in God – or whatever other title we wish to use. We we know that we have a Redeemer and a Brother in our Lord Jesus. And we know that we are filled with the Holy Spirit, who enables us to grow into the person God created us to be, and who gives us all we need, and more beside, to become that person.

And then, there is the fact that it is a mystery. That we can't understand or explain it. And that's great, too! So let us rejoice, and give thanks to God. Amen.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Thomas Gives Permission



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Today is one of those rare Sundays when we have the same Gospel reading every year;
the story of Thomas.
Doubting Thomas, we call him in the West, which is really rather unfair of us, as if it were the only thing about him that mattered!

This story, of course, begins on the evening of the Resurrection.
According to John's account
and yes, it does differ a little from some of the other accounts, as he puts in far more detail
the first person to have seen the risen Jesus was Mary Magdalene.
She had gone to the tomb very early,
and found that it was empty.
And while she was weeping quietly in the garden,
Jesus had come to her and reassured her.
Peter and John had also seen the empty tomb,
but had not yet met with the risen Jesus,
and the account isn't terribly clear as to whether or not they realised what had happened.

Anyway, that evening the disciples are together,
and Jesus comes to them, as we heard read.
He reassures them,
and reminds them of some of his earlier teachings,
and then, apparently, disappears again.

But Thomas isn't there.
We aren't told whether he hadn't yet arrived
or whether he had just left the room for a few moments,
gone to the loo, or to get pizza for everyone,
or something similar.
But whatever, he misses Jesus.
And, of course,
he doesn't believe a word of it.
The others are setting him up.
Or it was a hallucination.
Or something.
But it couldn't possibly be true.
And for a whole week he goes round muttering,
while the others are rejoicing.
Goodness, he must have been cross and miserable,
and the others must have been so frustrated that they couldn't help him.

And then Jesus is there again,
with a special word of reassurance,
just for Thomas.
He gets his side out, showing the wound.
Perhaps Thomas would care to touch it?
This isn't ectoplasm,
it's proper flesh.

Thomas can take Jesus' hand again,
just as before.
And Thomas bows down in awe and worship.
So what can we learn from the story of Thomas?
I personally find the story a very liberating one.
From Thomas,
I learn that I have
permission to wait,
permission to doubt,
and permission to change my mind.

Firstly, then,
Thomas tells us we have permission to wait.
That sounds odd,
but don't forget it was a whole week until Jesus put him out of his misery.
It must have been a pretty endless time,
feeling sure that his friends had got it wrong,
wondering who was going mad,
them or him.
But Thomas put up with it.
He didn't abandon his friends,
he didn't run off and do something different.
Instead, he stayed with them and put up with the pain and confusion and bewilderment,
and ultimately Jesus put everything right.
The Lectionary celebrates this every year on this Sunday;
it is the anniversary of the day when Jesus came to Thomas and put it all right for him.

A whole week, though.
Imagine that.
It must have felt like an eternity of doubt,
of confusion,
of bafflement.
The others were all totally convinced they’d seen Jesus,
and as far as Thomas was concerned, they’d all run quite mad.

So often we want things now.
If we are unwell, or grieving,
we want instant healing –
we want the confusion to be resolved.
What was that old prayer:
"God, give me patience, and I want it now!"
An addict trying to give up cigarettes or drink or other drugs
wants the craving to go away.
Someone who is ill or injured feels terrible and longs to feel better.
We don't like to experience bad feelings, obviously,
and we want them to go away. Now.
We also don't like to watch someone else experiencing bad feelings.
We might try to deny their feelings,
telling them they don't feel like that.
Or we might try to tell them they are wrong or wicked to have those feelings.
I’ve heard people say that if we have asked for healing,
we should then proceed to deny we feel ill!
When you are grieving the loss of a loved one, I'm told one of the most difficult things is when friends want you to be “over it” by now.

It is hideous horribly difficult to watch someone else suffer,
and we develop these strategies of coping so that their suffering doesn't rub off on us.
Also, of course, we don't like to have negative feelings because somehow we think we are failing as Christians when we do.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s gone to Church in a bad mood but with a sweet smile pasted on, and a “Fine, thanks!” in response to anybody who asks how we are.
We don’t like to admit we aren’t feeling wonderful –
in fact, we may even have been told, as I have in my time, that it’s a sin to feel less than one hundred percent on top of the world one hundred percent of the time!

I think one of the things the story of Thomas gives us is permission to have bad feelings.
Permission to feel confused, or angry, or bereaved, or muddled, or ill, or craving, or whatever.
Permission to wait to feel better, to allow it to take its time.

Thomas also tells us we have permission to be wrong, and to doubt.
Thomas was wrong.
He thought that Jesus had not been raised.
But it wasn't the end of the world that he thought so.

All too often, I think that if I am wrong,
if I am mistaken,
if I make a nonsense of something,
it is the end of the world.
I confuse making a mistake with a deliberate sin,
and think that God and others will condemn me for it.
But no,
look what happened to Thomas.
Far from being condemned,
Jesus comes to him specially to prove he is alive.
To show Thomas that the others hadn't gone totally mad.
Jesus was extra specially kind to Thomas.

It is encouraging, isn’t it?
We’re allowed to doubt –
it’s not the end of the world if we find something difficult to believe!
So often we try to suppress our doubts,
to pretend that we believe everything we’re supposed to believe, all “our doctrines”,
feeling that if we wonder for one minute we’ll be condemned.
Or maybe our experience of Christ’s love is so very different from that of our neighbour’s that we wonder if it’s really valid at all.
The thing is, when that sort of thing happens,
when we suddenly wonder whether our faith is all a big nothing,
or when we wonder if we’ve got it right,
then the story of Thomas tells us not to worry.
As the prophet Isaiah tells us,
“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying,
‘This is the way; walk in it.’”
“This is the way; walk in it.”

It’s okay to experiment with our faith, with our expression of our faith, and even, sometimes, with our whole lifestyle.
After all, if our faith doesn’t actually affect the way we live, it’s not much good –
but maybe we have allowed it to affect us to the point that the only people we know are Christians,
maybe even Christians who think exactly the same way we do?

The point is, if we get it wrong, Jesus will come to us, as he came to Thomas, and help us get back on track.
The Good Shepherd doesn’t hesitate to put on his Barbour and Wellies and go to find us if we get ourselves a bit lost.

So Thomas gives me permission to feel awful and
permission to make mistakes and to doubt.
But it would be wrong to leave it at that,
without looking briefly at the third permission Thomas gives us,
and that is to change our minds.
The thing is, Thomas was mistaken when he believed that Jesus had not risen from the dead.
Okay, fine.
But as soon as Jesus showed him he was wrong,
he changed his mind.
He fell down and worshipped the risen Jesus.
He felt ghastly for the whole week between Jesus' appearing to the rest of them, and Jesus appearing to him.
And that's okay.
But when Jesus did appear,
he forgot all about feeling ghastly,
he didn't get cross and go "Where were you?" or anything like that.
He just fell down and worshipped the risen Lord.

It doesn't matter if we feel awful for any reason.
It doesn’t matter if we get it wrong.
What does matter, though,
is if we are given the opportunity to correct ourselves,
or to put things right,
and we fail to take it.
Thomas didn't do that.
Thomas admitted he was wrong,
and he fell down and worshipped the risen Lord.
When we are shown, as Thomas was,
that we have made a mistake,
the thing to do is to put it right.
They do say that the person who never made a mistake never made anything, and that's very true.
But the point is, it is only by correcting our mistakes that we can make progress.
If we stay stubbornly convinced that we are right, and everybody else is wrong, we won't get anywhere.
We won't be freed to go on with Jesus.


Thomas is supposed to have gone on to found the Church in India.
He couldn't have done that if he had gone on being convinced he was right and everybody else was wrong.
He admitted he had been wrong,
and thus was free to put it behind him and go on with Jesus.

Are you able to do this?
Are you able to wait for clarification when things seem to have gone wrong?
Can you wait, trusting God that you will feel better in due course?
Can you live with your doubts and confusion,
perhaps opening the door to becoming a bigger person through them?
And can you put it all behind you and say, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” Amen.