Sermon for Easter 2021

Alleluia Christ is Risen, He is Risen indeed Alleluia!!

Image by the French Impressionist James Tissot – original in the Brooklyn Museum

It’s not easy to convey a sense of wonder, let alone resurrection wonder, to one another. It’s the very nature of wonder to catch us off guard, to circumvent expectations and assumptions. Wonder can’t be packaged, and it can’t be worked up. It requires some sense of being there and some sense of engagement.

Eugene Peterson “Living the Resurrection

I think we might agree that today we are here to celebrate the Resurrection; but what exactly do we mean by that? Now this is neither the time nor the place to see how many angels I can stack up on the head of a pin, so we don’t want a highfaluting theological explanation, what we want is something more tangible, more experiential and more down to earth.

There is a point in the Easter Vigil when after recalling the history of the people of Israel, we suddenly switch the lights on and announce – Alleluia Christ is Risen and the congregation responds – He is Risen indeed Alleluia!! If this ritual gives the impression that the Resurrection is a sudden change from despair to joy, then maybe we need to think again.

That’s not how it was for Mary in the Garden, for the disciples on the road to Emmaus or those gathered in the upper room or indeed those who fished all night and caught nothing. These four instances are captured in our Eucharistic prayer today:

In the first light of Easter
glory broke from the tomb
and changed the women’s sorrow into joy.

From the Garden the mystery dawned
that he whom they had loved and lost
is with us now in every place for ever.

Making himself known in the breaking of the bread,
speaking peace to the fearful disciples,
welcoming weary fishers on the shore,
he renewed the promise of his presence

SEC Eucharistic Prayer for Easter to Pentecost

In all of these cases “the mystery dawned”, a slow realisation as to what had happened. Jesus, the man who had been with them for a while had been put to death on a cross and they had seen that happen. So of course encountering Him again took some time to sink in.

For the disciples on the road to Emmaus and those in the upper room, it was remembering what He had said when he was with them through experiencing His present actions that restored their faith in Him. For the fishermen, they had worked all night and caught nothing, but still they were given hope by a ‘stranger’ on the shore and experienced a bumper catch. For Mary, it was the love that spoke her name that she experienced whilst talking to the one she took to be the gardener. As Paul says to the Corinthians: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Now Christian faith isn’t a pair of rose-tinted spectacles through which to look at the Cross. The Cross is still a terrible instrument of torture and horror, one of the cruelest ways ever devised by human beings to kill each other. Christian faith doesn’t gloss over all of that. No Christian faith looks through the cross, and sees in that awfulness the mystery of love, the mystery of unconditional forgiveness, the mystery of hope and the very mystery of God.
In our Lenten Study on “Lament and the Psalms”, we saw that Lament takes us from crying out in Anguish and Despair, through remembering what God has done for us in the past and asking God for help until eventually it becomes possible to respond to God again in Trust and Praise. This process has much in common with Holy Week and in particular the Triduum. Like the Resurrection is also takes some time for “the mystery to dawn”.

The Resurrection of Jesus was the creation of the new bodily practical, down to earth world, not some sort of etherial existence in the clouds, the new way of being human, the new way of being a person in this world. The Risen Jesus didn’t enter paradise. He IS paradise. Heaven isn’t a place up there beyond the sky.

Sorry if it comes as a disappointment, but missions to the moon, to Mars or to the very edge of the solar system or beyond aren’t going to bump into heaven on the way, no matter how far they go. Heaven is the Risen Christ, the Body of Christ, living by love, pure love, which sets no conditions, no boundaries, the beginnings of risen humankind, the ultimate future of humanity.

It’s in the holy mystery of the Eucharist that we share in the embodied life of the Risen Christ and it’s because we belong to this new world, that we can conquer death, that we’re able to live not just for ourselves but for others in love. The love that Christ showed us, in everything he taught and every thing he did. And it’s because of love that we celebrate the Cross at Easter.

We have all lived through a difficult year. We have faced considerable disruption to our lives and challenge to the way that we interact with each other. In fact we weren’t able to meet up at all last Easter. However, no matter what happens, Resurrection gives us the ability to be present – to live, not just forever, but for now – to “have life and have it abundantly”.

Leo Tolstoy wrote: “that he became a Christian because he saw that the men and women round about him who believed in the faith, received from it a power that enabled them to face life and death with peace and joy

So let’s all engage with the Wonder of the Resurrection, through our experience of Christ, in Faith, Hope and Love.

Alleluia Christ is Risen, He is Risen indeed Alleluia!! Amen.

Will no-one stay awake

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’

Mark 14:32-42

A shaft of sunlight

Today we see a glimpse of the light that is to come and then …

Open to me the gates of righteousness,

that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.

This is the Lord’s doing;

it is marvelous in our eyes.

The LORD is God, and he has given us light.

Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;

you are my God, I will extol you.

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,

for his steadfast love endures forever.

Psalm 118:19, 23, 26-28

Looking forward together in Christ

On 11th March it was the 10th anniversary of the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami which caused much devastation in small fishing communities up and down Japan’s Pacific coast. By the time I visited some of these communities in November 2011, quite a bit of progress had been made in rebuilding facilities and infrastructure, though there was still much to do in restoring people’s homes and livelihoods.

Given the scale of the damage and disruption to people’s lives, I wondered how hope had emerged from all the chaos and despair. In discussion with several Japanese people, what emerged was that a crucial factor was the timing. The Tsunami hit just before the arrival of the ‘sakura-zensen” the ‘cherry blossom front’.

In Japan the arrival of the cherry blossom (sakura) is greeted with great reverence, with people camping out for several days so as to be in the best place when it happens. There are parties (hanami parties) with groups of family or friends picnicking under trees laden with blossom. There’s a virtual wave as the sakura-zensen which sweeps north from the southern island of Kyushu in early March up through the main archipelago to Hokkaido in the north by some time in May. Daily reports of the location of the sakura-zensen are broadcast on the news, so that people can track it’s progress and be ready for it when it arrives.

The meaning and significance of cherry blossom in Japan runs deep, making the country’s national flower a cultural icon revered not just for its beauty, but for its enduring symbolism. Cherry blossom symbolises for them, life, death and renewal, and the delicate balance between the fragility and impermanence of our existence and new life and hope. Sakura are have been revered for many centuries in Japanese folk religions, as a symbol of rebirth, believed to represent the mountain deities that transformed into the gods of rice paddies and guaranteed the year’s harvest.

Sakura have therefore always signalled the beginning of spring, a time of renewal and optimism. So with the blooming in 2011 coming shortly after the tsunami, it engendered this spirit of optimism and renewal bringing with it new hope and new dreams. When cherry blossoms are in full bloom, the future is bursting with possibilities. When the Japanese gather under the cherry blossom trees each year, they’re also commemorating the loss of loved ones and reflecting on their own lives with a sense of wonder whilst also laying aside the disappointments of the past to focus on a promising new start.

Given all that has happened over the last year, as we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, let us likewise look forward with hope and optimism, laying aside our own disappointments and looking forward to all the new possibilities together in Christ.

Blessings
James

Sermon for the fifth Sunday of Lent – 21.03.21

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

During these forty days of Lent, we remember that Jesus spent forty days in the desert – fasting, praying, being tempted by the devil, and meditating on the word of God. If you know a bit about the story of Israel in the Old Testament you’ll might also remember that the Israelites were in the desert for forty years.

They wandered about and zig-zaged back and forth in the desert, lost their way and sometimes even longed to return to the predictability of slavery and oppression in Egypt.

In the desert the Israelites resisted listening to Moses and following God and it was also in the desert that Jesus listened intently to God in prayer and, using the word of God, where He countered the devil’s attacks on Him.

In the season of Lent many of us attempt to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in some way – through fasting, praying and meditating on the word of God. This is a tough season to stick with: forty days of intentional spiritual practices – of ‘giving up’ things we are attached to and of remembering that the shadow of the cross looms over us as we draw near to Holy week.

At the end of Lent, before the Easter egg hunt, before the trumpets and the lilies… before the empty tomb, and resurrection alleluias… is that cross. Jesus suffered an agonising death – the most painful and humiliating capital punishment that the Roman authorities could devise.

At the cross Jesus experienced a fearful and agonising moment of separation from God.

At the cross Jesus completely surrendered Himself.

The season of Lent is a time when we can learn to surrender ourselves to God. We surrender our will, our self-centeredness, our addiction to sin and our good intentions to live a holy life, because… we want to see Jesus.

In our gospel reading today John tells us that there were Greeks who went to the Temple during the Passover. Some of them – outsiders – went to Philip (one of Jesus’ disciples) and said, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.

Just as many people think that Matthew’s gospel was written to address the Jewish community, many also think that John had a specific audience and a specific agenda in mind when writing his gospel. John’s agenda was that God’s Kingdom embraces and includes all people; that Christ came for all the world; and that in Him salvation is offered freely to everyone.

All kinds of people were attracted to Jesus: outsiders, pagans – unacceptable people that no devout Jew would associate with, much less worship with.

Some of “those people” came to Philip, and said, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” There are lots of echoes of this visit throughout scripture.

In Jesus’ last days, when foreigners came seeking Him, we remember His early days, when foreigners came from the East also seeking Jesus.

Here in John’s gospel Jesus uses this experience of outsiders seeking Him, to again talk about His death and God’s plan to glorify Him.

Sometimes some of us struggle with John’s gospel, and with John’s insistence that Jesus’ suffering and death was part of God’ plan. It’s hard to believe that God intentionally sent Jesus to die – surely God came to us in love and to send someone to die sounds so cruel and doesn’t fit! That God let us resist and rebel against God’s love even to the point of silencing Jesus on the cross – does that sound like the actions of a God of Love?

But if we think about it, if we look beyond the horizon of Holy week, we realise that God’s love is more powerful than our ideas of cruelty and hate. God raises Jesus from the grave in the supreme act of love that triumphs over sin, death and hell. We must understand that on the cross Jesus took on the sin of humanity, freeing us from the chains that our own sin had forever wrapped around us. God’s agenda – throughout the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – is to draw us to God’s self in love – whatever the cost!

Consider this: Jesus had to die!

He had to die partly because He was fully human, as we are, and in His arrest, trial, abandonment, torture and death on a cross, He experienced the full bitter cup of our life’s sorrows in the extreme. Jesus was one of us, and He understands us. He is with us, as only one can be who has experienced the depths of human agony, pain and sorrow. On the cross Jesus surrendered His divinity (just as He had done at His birth) and fully became one of us. On the cross we see God laid bare – God made so vulnerable that we almost have to look away.

During Lent the point of our spiritual practices is to help us to surrender and die to the false love we have for things like ‘being successful’ and ‘looking good’ and having people admire us. We are striving to see real love – love that is deep and vulnerable. We are striving to see Jesus!

May God bless you and those you hold dear during this coming week.

Fr Simon.

Women and Mothers

In the NIV translation of the Bible, Psalm 68:5 is rendered

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.

Psalm 68:5

And it is these words that inspired Graham Kendrick to write his worship song “Father Me (O father of the fatherless)”.

Well if God may be described as “Father to the Fatherless”, then why not also “Mother to the Motherless”?

In this time when women are very much in our minds: International Women’s Day last week, the murder of Sarah Everard and the vigils and calls for action that have followed, a study of Scripture reveals the many ways in which God is described as like a Woman or a Mother.

Here are a selection of examples to reflect on as we all consider the implications of the events of the last week or two:

Women and men are both created in the image of God

Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them; female and male, God made them.

Genesis 1:27

God is described as a Mother eagle

Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions.

Deuteronomy 32:11-12

It’s God who gives birth

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.

Deuteronomy 32:18

God is described as a Mother

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.

Hosea 11:3-4

God is described as a Mother bear

Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…

Hosea 13:8

God is as a Woman in labour

For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant.

Isaiah 42:14

God is compared to a nursing Mother

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.

Isaiah 49:15

God’s described as a comforting Mother

As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

Isaiah 66:13

God likened to a Woman

As the eyes of a servant looks to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to you, YHWH, until you show us your mercy!

Psalm 123:2-3

God is described as a Mother

But I’ve calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

Psalm 131:2

Jesus likens God to a Mother hen

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Matthew 23:37 & Luke 13:34

Jesus likens God to a Woman who’s lost a coin

Or what woman having ten silver coins, is she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’

Luke 15:8-10

A huge thank you to all those who lovingly prepared the Mothering Sunday posies (pictured above), those who kindly supplied the flowers and greenery and those who have given their time to distribute and are continuing to distribute them far and wide – it is much appreciated by everyone.

Sermon for 4th Sunday in Lent (14th March 2021)

Fudai flood protection barrier (Nov 2011)

Num 21:4-9; Ps 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Last Thursday, 11th March, was the 10th anniversary of the massive earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tōhokuin Japan and the subsequent tsunami that damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex and caused a great deal of devastation in communities up and down Japan’s Pacific coast.

In November 2011, I was in Japan, as part of a research project on the preservation of records in our different cultures. As part of that visit I was greatly privileged in that my Japanese colleague was able to arrange through a friend for us to travel to two coastal communities on the Pacific coast – Noda and Fudai.

Noda was devastated in the 2011 tsunami, which swept across the low-lying ground destroying all in its path. Many houses were destroyed, but few died as a result of the tsunami early warning system which allowed almost everyone to get to higher ground.

Fudai was spared from the devastation brought to other coastal communities thanks to a 51 foot dam and floodgate, built between 1972 and 1984 by Kotoku Wamura, the village mayor, because he didn’t want to see a repeat of the devastating effects of the 1933 earthquake and tsunami. For many years this project was derided as a waste of public money and the mayor ridiculed for spending so much on it, but the floodgate protected the village and the inner cove from the worst of the 2011 tsunami whose waves reached 55 feet.  The villagers nowgive thanks at Wamura’s grave and he’s seen as a foresighted hero.

In November 2011, astonishingly, we were the first people from outside the area to visit and were welcomed with great kindness and gratitude. It was a truly humbling experience as civic leaders explained to us how much our visit mean’t to them and their communities. Many people had lost their livelihoods, destroyed with their boats and nets and their lives had been turned upside down by the loss of their houses. On Friday morning everything was fine and people were looking forward to the weekend and by Friday afternoon livelihoods and homes all swept away.

Our passage from John’s Gospel begins with a play on the words “lift up”. It describes God’s command to Moses to lift up the serpent in the wilderness and the lifting up that’s in store for Jesus. This word-play relies on a knowledge of our Old Testament passage from Numbers, where the people have become “impatient” as they make their way with Moses through the wilderness, after their departure from Egypt.  They’re starting to despair at trying to survive in a land with no food and water and they’re complaining about both God and Moses. Perhaps in much the way that we’re finding this pandemic and lockdown has become a bit tedious.

The result of this complaining is that terrible serpents appear and, bite people who subsequently die. Now this may sound a bit vengeful and perhaps petty of God. But let’s park that for the moment.  When they repent of their complaining, the Lord tells Moses to make a serpent and raise it up on a pole so that anyone who’s been bitten can look at it and recover. The serpent here serves to symbolise both God’s anger and God’s mercy.

In recalling this story, John is reflecting on Jesus being lifted up. For John, Jesus’ being “lifted up” includes both his being raised up on a cross and being raised up to be with his Father in glory. All those who look up to Jesus in faith will be saved, will be given “eternal life”. To see the Son of Man lifted up calls for “belief” not simply a transformation of earthly life, but in eternal life. God once saved the people by calling them to gaze on the serpent, now, God will save His people by having them gaze in belief on the Son, lifted up. And all of this is a sign of God’s love.  John is emphasising that God sent his Son to save and not to judge or condemn.

At the heart of our passage this morning is John 3:16, probably one of the best known verses in the Bible: 

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

John 3:16

Notwithstanding this, the “so” is often misunderstood. The Greek houtos means “so” in the sense of “in this way” – John 3:16 isn’t about how much God loved the world. it’s about how God’s love of the world is demonstrated. The single most important thing to notice about this verse is that God loved the world that He’screated. God loves by having given the son, a non-coercive act that sets in motion tangible consequences.

Yet God’s action isn’t disinterested. The purpose of God’s having sent His Son was to save the world, just as the purpose of commanding Moses to erect a serpent on a pole was to save the people from death. The son came to save, to grant eternal life because God loved the world. That’s Jesus’ message.

I’m here because the God who loved you of old, still does. He sent me to tell you, to show you and to gather you up into life with him forever

God sent his Son to save and not to judge or condemn. Jesus’ coming is to bring a light into the dark places, that is the dark areas of our lives that we don’t feel able to admit to or to own.  It’s the darkness of shame when there’s something in our lives which we would like to deal with by being able to share, but don’t feel able to bring out into the open.

The most likely reason for hiding things in dark places is the fear of judgment, rejection or ridicule by others. Take heart, it’s not a loving God who condemns, the agents of darkness are those who sit in judgment on others;but in reality it’s they themselves that are living in the darkness of prejudice and hate, usually as a result of their own inner fears and insecurities.

After the earthquake and tsunami, the people of the coastal villages worked hard to try to restore some form of “normality” as they struggled with the disaster that had hit them. They didn’t see the events of 11th March as being the actions of a vengeful or angry God, but what was apparent to all was the spirit of community and the love of neighbour which caused light to shine in the dark places.

The people of Fudai are of course very grateful that their former mayor Kotoku Wamura didn’t hide his idea about the dam in dark places for fear of judgment, rejection or ridicule by the rest of the community – although he did receive plenty of all three – he just ignored their complaining and got on with it. An example to us all.

The Covid pandemic isn’t the action of a vengeful or angry God, but in many communities it has unleashed a spirit of community and love of neighbour which has caused light to shine in dark places.  Amen.

On the Loss of Lament

What happens when appreciation of the lament as a form of speech and faith is lost, as I think it is largely lost in contemporary usage? What happens when the speech forms that redress power distribution have been silenced and eliminated?

One loss that results from the absence of lament is the loss of genuine covenant interaction, since the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology.

Where lament is absent, covenant comes into being only as a celebration of joy and well-being. Or in political categories, the greater party is surrounded by subjects who are always “yes-men and women” from whom “never is heard a discouraging word.

Since such a celebrative, consenting silence does not square with reality, covenant minus lament is finally a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense, which sanctions social control.

Where the cry is not voiced, heaven is not moved and history is not initiated. The end is hopelessness.

Where the cry is seriously voiced, heaven may answer and earth may have a new chance. The new resolve in heaven and the new possibility on earth depend on the initiation of protest.

The Costly Loss of Lament” Walter Brueggemann