Lent 5A – 29th March 2020

Ezekiel 37.1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8.6-11, John 11.1-45

Come Forth

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Writing to you from Big Barns (our house up in Dunrobin Woods), rather than preparing a sermon to offer in one of our beautiful church buildings this coming Sunday, seems so very at odds with our regular pattern of meeting together to worship Our Lord. Social distancing is so very important in halting the spread of the Coronavirus, but is proving difficult for those of us who are ‘social animals’.

Many people are extremely worried about family, friends and their own state of mind – and this is to be expected. It has been really good to see and hear about the many ways in which people are helping each other to ‘keep their spirits up’ – from calls on the telephone, letters through the post and hi jinks using online social media. All of this is really important and is to be applauded, but whilst this is happening we must remember also, the seriousness of the situation. We must take time each day to stop and think about
those families who are in deep distress and mourning and to pray for those who have died.

At the beginning of Lent, many of us traditionally pray that Our Lord would protect us from “dying suddenly and unprepared”. Yet, as we are all acutely aware right now, death can happen so suddenly and when we are not expecting it. The last words of the famous, even the unknown, remind us of the intrusive character of death. In every spy film, there’s the woman in the villain’s lair who asks, “And what does this button do?” Or the many who said, “Oh, let me do it! I saw that on television!” Or the man who said, “The odds of that happening to me are one in a million!” In his last minutes of this life, Oscar Wilde, very ill, in a cheap Paris hotel room said, “Either this awful wallpaper goes, or I do!” Death is often seen as an uninvited intruder. But Francis of Assisi called it “Sister Death” and that’s a different approach altogether.

Death has a kind of push and pull about it — we are pulled to trust the words of faith, but our fears can push down our rising hopes. Death is like a doorway through which at some point we all must pass.

Whether welcomed or avoided, death comes—to men and women, young and old, rich and poor—it comes to all, without exception. Many of us believe deep down that we’re going to be that one exceptional person who is actually immortal in the flesh. It’s like the
comedian Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” So, we tiptoe around death describing it as “expiring,” like death arrived as a sell by date on a tin of beans, or we hear someone say a loved one ‘passed’.

But Christ shows us a different way. St Paul wrote to the Thessalonians (1 Thes. 4.13)…“we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” That’s why the Church proclaims, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

The passage today from John’s gospel about the raising of Lazarus tells how Jesus’ friend, Lazarus died. And how Jesus came with his holy and powerful presence up against death, with his friends Martha and Mary. But they could only say to him, “If you had been here our brother would not have died.” And others asked, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the man born blind have prevented Lazarus’ death?” And Jesus saw his friends from Bethany weeping, and heard the wailing of the mourners and Jesus himself shed tears as the scripture said, “he was deeply moved” and “troubled in himself”.

Here with his friends, we stare at the strong door of death, and yearn for the ones who have passed beyond our reach. But I sometimes wonder if Jesus’ tears were tears of grief, or frustration, or anger, or incredulity at those who didn’t believe? Hadn’t they seen, heard, or comprehended the message from God through Christ to a hurting, grieving world?

Jesus speaks the power of God, a message of consolation and encouragement, but they and we sometimes find it very difficult to hear this message. We crouch outside death’s door waiting in fear to be called ourselves at our own time. When we get wrapped up in
fear and loss, we can lose the Godly vision of our life and our death and how the gospel speaks to us about them. The power of God is now and always has been the power to raise us from the dead. And that is not about us. It is about God. I realise that may sound
like hyperbole, but that’s how I think we must view death, we must see it through the eyes of the one who created us.

Probably the greatest student of death and dying ever was the medical doctor Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She said we humans stand at the top of an evolutionary chain that spans seven million years and humans have lived and died every day during that long, long time. We have put a man on the moon, but we have studied death so little that our understanding of it is negligible. So, after a lifetime of study, she made several simple observations about what her patients had taught her about death. She said that, first, death is a part of life just as birth is a part of life, and the lesson in that is just as you came into this life and found an existence, so in dying we are making an important transition. She saw the most fretful and anxious persons…even very angry persons, find in dying a peaceful calm as they reached out and touched the other side of this life.

In the same way, Jesus in the gospel is trying to teach us that lesson. Firstly, Lazarus’ resuscitation brings the realisation that God rules over the gateway between life and death and whether we are pushing or pulling to get into or out of that door, it is God who
oversees our going out and our coming in from this time forth forevermore. Death is a part of life and God leads us through faith into new life.

Secondly, this body in which we live is a vessel for the unique spirit that God has placed in us. There’s only one of each of us…we are all unique. We are not going to be folded into the great ocean of death and be lost. But rather, the one who put us into this body will be the first to welcome us on the other side. In the transition, death brings a complete healing…to the deaf, the lame, the blind, the addict…what is lost, is found.

And finally, we don’t do this alone. Just as we were welcomed into this world, God’s love gets us through that door to be welcomed and received with great joy on the other side. That love cannot be defeated, deflated, nor deflected. My friends, be confident that Heaven is indeed real and the God who pulled our bones together will keep us together even when our bones are not.

Faith tells us that, whilst it might be frightening and distressing for those around us, it’s going to be OK passing through that door, because the one who called us all into existence, is the same one who stood outside Lazarus’ tomb and called out, “Come forth”.
God is calling us into a new life in Him BECAUSE as we know, “Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again” to each and every one of us. Amen.

Fr Simon

With the people on his heart

During this time of crisis, Simon and James are each separately celebrating the Eucharist each week, “standing before God with the people on his heart“.  It’s difficult for both us and you not being able to share the Eucharist together.  However we should be clear as to role of the priest in the Eucharist as (in some sense) representing Christ to the people, and also as representing the people to God (“standing before God with the people on his/her heart“).

No priest does this because of inherent goodness or other qualities they possess or because of any dignity or status.  Priests who preside at the Eucharist do so in the full knowledge of their own unworthiness and as participants in the sinfulness of the world. In the Liturgy, the priest represents the incarnate Christ in his identification with the people, not as someone standing over them, but as belonging to them, and they to him/her.

Michael Ramsey, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961-1974, from wrote in his book “The Christian Priest Today“, that “Being with God with the people on your heart is the meaning of the daily office, of the Eucharist and of every part of your prayer and service of people.”  Sound advice, which is why the book, first published in 1972, is still on the recommended reading list of those in training for ministry in the Church.

As we celebrate the sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour in this ‘socially distanced’ way, it’s instructive to read the rubrics in the service for “Communion of the sick” in the Scottish Prayer Book, dealing with the situation where someone is unable to “receive the Sacrament with his mouth“:

“If a man, either by reason of extremity of sickness, or for want of warning in due time to the Priest, or by any other just impediment, do not receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood: the Priest shall instruct him that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and stedfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefor; he doth eat and drink the Body and Bread of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.”

Rubrics in Communion of the sick” in the Scottish Prayer Book 1929.

Blessings
James

The Annunciation – a reflection by Rev Nicholas Court

On Wednesday this week, it will be exactly 9 months to go to Christmas – and I have been invited to share a few musings with you, reflecting upon the lovely Feast of the Annunciation which this Wednesday brings us. It is a feast of great encouragement, because centre-stage is Mary, and it serves to remind us that we find in Her the sort of disciple weare all called to be. We see in this teenage Mother our own potential as Christians – all that we can be and become if we only open our hearts in loving trust to God as She did, despite the human doubts and weaknesses that are part of who we are. Mary is full of questions – when Mary receives the visit from Gabriel at the Annunciation – ‘How can this be?’ is Her questioning response. And She continues to question when Her Son wanders off into the Temple – ‘Why have you done this?’

At Cana She offers us the perfect model of prayer – “They have no wine” – and during His public ministry Jesus does not single His Mother out for honour because of Her biological role, but responds to Her as someone who hears God’s word and gives it flesh and bones.

Like all the disciples of Jesus, the Mary we meet in the Gospels walks by faith and not by sight. She treasures what words She has received from and about Jesus, and ponders them in Her heart. You can hear the Mary of the Magnificat glorying in the power of God who lovingly overturns all the signs of toxic power within society. The Mary of the Magnificat is not some simpering waif of a virgin but more like a warrior queen, robustly challenging the forces of sin and human greed in the name of the God whose power transforms our world. It’s as if Mary says, “Make my song yours too, because as Gabriel told me – ‘With God no thing shall be impossible’.”

We were reminded in last Sunday’s Gospel of that devastating scene atop Calvary, where She stands grieving at the foot of Her Son’s cross. The beloved disciple, another model for all followers of Christ, is told by the dying Jesus to cherish Mary as his Mother, and She is told to care for him as Her own. When the church is born with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Mary is there again, at the heart of the community, no longer grieving, but worshipping Her Son.

Mary’s questions at the Annunciation are our questions too – how is it that God can work through such weak instruments as we too often feel ourselves to be – something we feel particularly acutely as we face our current crisis? Well, just look where else we encounter Mary. She is there, watching as the tasteless water of our lives is turned into the life-giving wine of Her Son’s grace. Like Mary, we are invited to treasure all that we know of Jesus and ponder it in our hearts. Her Magnificat blesses us, not because by some accident of birth we are members of the Church, but because we too are part of the humanity in which She and Her Son shared – and this is something to really celebrate!

Before I conclude, I’d like to leave you with a lovely and whimsical poem, written by an Anglican Priest called Penelope Dent – whom it is my guess may not a fashionable size zero (but I may be wrong)! She conjures up a Mary who is so very human – much more of a Mother, and less of a queen – a Mary who knows what it is to be thoroughly human, and who like a best friend, prays daily for us, out of love, to Her Son. It’s called My Fat Virgin Mary:

I’m tired of skinny Virgin Marys,
Medieval, milk-mild.
The one I want has a bosom and a heart.
Brooding, maternal and magnificent.
You listen, you love
And you understand.

O most funny,
Glorious, vulgar fat Lady.
I love you
And the God who made your commodious bosom,
Head rest, heart rest
For the uncomforted.

Hold us and love us,
You who dare to be big
And despise corsets.
You who love life
And bottles of stout, pork pies
and bags of greasy chips,
Wrapped in newspaper.

Belligerently beautiful,
Queen of all fat women,
Defender of the unloved.
Accuser of the small-minded, sawdust people,
Who never get involved nor find the time to love your Son,

Wrapped in themselves.
O most funny Lady, most funny Lady,
Mother of mothers,
Praise be to you for showing us your acceptance,
Your grief and your rejoicing.
Praise be to you for daring to be big,
Proud of your girth
And all Glorious within.

Lent 4A – 22nd March 2020

1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Coronavirus has made all familiar things strange”, so wrote Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times yesterday, he also observed that “It should not take something as terrible as this to awake us to life’s inherent fragility”.

What was once familiar now appears very strange indeed and what was unthinkable a few weeks ago is now our reality.

Today isn’t an easy day for the Church. For all of us, this is the day when the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic hits home. Our Churches (and the places of worship of other religions) are closed. This is unprecented, even World Wars haven’t closed places of worship on this scale.

Little did we realise that when, last week, we heard the words “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”, that these would seem be fulfilled as our reality a mere 48 hours later.

Today’s readings include the dramatic story of a man healed of his blindness in John’s Gospel and the story of God’s choice of the young shepherd boy David to be king of Israel. Nestling between them we have many people’s favourite Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd …”, a prayer of hope in troubled times. Also there’s a passage from the letter to the Ephesians which begins with two instructions: “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord,” and “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness,” both of which Christians in every age are called to do, no matter what circumstances they find themselves in. Rest assured that many believers have found themselves in circumstances every bit as challenging as those we are facing today.

Living in a “world of darkness”, there’s a tendency to turn in on yourself, to no longer see those around you, to fail to grasp the bigger picture. On the other hand, when you’re living “in the Lord,” the horizon widens: you see other people, community becomes possible and you can step with hope into the unknown. It’s these conditions that allow us to tune in to “what is pleasing to the Lord”.

Perhaps, a Lent in which what was once familiar now appears very strange indeed is a good time to reflect on the question that the Disciples ask Jesus, “How then should we live?” “Live”, says Ephesians, “as children of light”. This whole passage is about what “Living as children of light” means for people of faith in their daily life and no more so than today.

Ephesus was a large city of diverse populations, home to numerous shrines and deities, and especially to the great temple of Artemis. In this sophisticated, pluralistic city, Christians were nothing more than a distinctive minority. Many Christians today might feel the same way in the diverse, ‘sophisticated’ world in which we live. “Living as children of light” doesn’t call for fear, hiding in safe places, keeping things quiet. It calls for sharing the Good News of Our Lord Jesus Christ to a frightened and anxious world, tempted to selfishly stockpile.

Today is Mothering Sunday, the mid-point of our Lenten journey. Those of us that have been taking Mothering Sunday posies to people within and also on the fringes of our congregations, have found beaming smiles and recipients so grateful to see a suitably ‘social-distanced’ person at the door bearing a tiny posy and a copy of Simon’s short Mothering Sunday piece about being flowers in our world, suggesting that we “fill the world with fragrance, and give flavour to life”. Yes that’s “living a children of light”.

In the exhortation to live as children of the light, the Ephesians are expected to care for one another as family. But we as people of faith are not just any old family. The Christian Family and especially the Church, is called to “speak the truth in love”, as a mother does to her child, as a means to grow and as a goal for growing. Only in this way can we mature into the body of Christ we’re called and enabled to be.

This lifestyle isn’t a mystery. It’s been described in every kind of literature from poetry, to novels, to self-help books, to the Bible, over and over again. We all know what it looks like, even if we only catch glimpses of it now and again. We see it in the seemingly random acts of kindness towards strangers and the smiles and camaraderie of people united in adversity. We see it in the unexpected and in those things that we so easily overlook. We see it in the delicate, ephemeral spring blossom, that “awake us” each year “to life’s inherent fragility”, as it appears and then it’s gone.

So, even if we’re unable to meet as congregations, to hold services in Church and to do many of the things that we’ve become used to doing, we can use every other means at our disposal, to pay attention, to listen to one another, to seek one another’s well-being, without fear or favour, not judging whether someone does or does not ‘deserve’ this kind of attention. We and all those around us are Children of God. As Simon put it in his Mothering Sunday piece: “There is an important place for our individual response to God, but when we come together as a church we discover new things about ourselves as we relate to each other as well as to God. Like a flower arrangement, we can bring out the best in each other, and complement and support each other.” We need to find ways to do just that, without endangering ourselves and others.

Our reading from Samuel speaks of a time when chaos engulfed Israel in a way that’s become all too familiar over the past week. God sent Samuel with his response and as Samuel tries to do what God seems to be asking him; he gets more and more confused – the obvious doesn’t appear to be what God wants.

As he works through Jesse’s sons from the oldest downwards, he gets increasingly frustrated as God seems to be rejecting them one by one saying: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart”.

It’s only when they get to the bottom of the barrel to the ignored and forgotten David, whose looking after the sheep in the field, the least and the unexpected, it’s only then that the answer comes. As the days, weeks and months go by and more and more of what was once familiar becomes very strange indeed, we need to remember that it’s in the least and the unexpected that the miraculous will happen – though perhaps not in the way that Donald Trump predicted of Covid-19 on 27th February: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.Amen.

Be a Flower that Blooms

Most people will have realised that this coming Sunday (22nd March) is Mother’s Day – or to give it the ‘proper’ title, Mothering Sunday. Mothering Sunday is a good occasion to think about the nature of God – for, as Julian of Norwich said in the fourteenth century, ‘as truly as God is our Father, so also is God our Mother’.

People sometimes think that feminine imagery for God is very new, but it actually goes way back to some of the early books of the Bible. The prophet Hosea described the way God cared for his people in a very maternal way.

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led with cords of human kindness, with the 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).

Now, we don’t have to start calling God ‘Mother’ – that isn’t necessarily any more helpful than ‘Father’. But it is worth noting that there is this element in the biblical tradition, and it has been picked up by people in the centuries since.

So how can we respond to this God who is mother and father and so much else besides? On Mothering Sunday, like so many others do, perhaps we could say it with flowers.

How on earth can we do that? No floral delivery company has a way to cope with it! But we do talk about offering ourselves to God. I don’t suppose you have ever thought of yourself as a flower, even though flower allusions abound in our language; we talk about being ‘fresh as a daisy’, or we describe someone as being ‘a shrinking violet’. People are sometimes ‘prickly’.

But when you think about it, what kind of flower are you? Are you like a camellia, rather startlingly beautiful? Or like rosemary, starting to bloom right at the beginning of your life and continuing year on year? Are you one of those plants that doesn’t flower often? Or one that props others up? Are you a plant with rather insignificant flowers, but always there in the background to help others give of their best? Do you fill the world with fragrance, or give flavour to life?

Are you one of the plants that bring hope in the dark days of winter? Some plants are very beautiful when their flowers are dead – some people come into their own towards the end of their lives.

Sometimes we put a single flower into a vase and enjoy its beauty. At other times, we put many different varieties together in an arrangement. There is an important place for our individual response to God, but when we come together as a church we discover new things about ourselves as we relate to each other as well as to God. Like a flower arrangement, we can bring out the best in each other, and complement and support each other.

On our own perhaps we don’t look very exciting – that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own beauty – but put with others, the ones who are a bit shy can find support, and those who are rather exotic can lend their colour and perfume to the more retiring. Even those who are prickly can be a great support to those who are fragile.

So we can give God quite a bouquet – and it we listen carefully, we’ll hear God say, as every mother does, ‘Thank you dear, that’s just lovely!

Blessings
Simon

To Keep a True Lent

Tuesday was Shrove Tuesday, or to give it its more common name, Pancake Day. It’s traditionally the last day of indulgence before the start of the season of the Church year called Lent. This season lasts for 46 days (or 40 if Sundays are excluded, as they traditionally are). For many people Lent’s a time for abstinence and when I was a boy, there was no chocolate, no cakes and no biscuits from Ash Wednesday until Easter Day. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see Lent as something far richer than simply a time of giving up treats. This isn’t of course a new idea, as long ago as 1648, Robert Herrick wrote a poem called “To Keep a True Lent”. The first verse of which is:

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

His initial reply to the question is:

No; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

And he finishes:

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

He attaches importance in attending to the physical needs of those less fortunate than oneself and then to one’s own spiritual needs – “to starve thy sin not bin”. Giving up treats can of course serve both purposes. In the case of the former, we can spend the money saved giving to the food bank or to charity and in the latter, the discipline of refraining from and refusing treats serves as an all too frequent reminder of this particular goal.

You don’t have to be religious to see a need to examine your life and the way you live it; to examine your relationships and how you interact with others; to strip away the masks that you hide behind and the stories that you tell yourself to justify what you do and think. The main difference for those who believe in God is that there’s nowhere to hide. You can tell yourself that your actions are always entirely justified, as much as you like, but there’s simply no hiding from the scrutiny of an all-seeing, all-knowing deity.

Some say we’re now living in a surveillance society, with CCTV cameras everywhere you turn, but for those with a faith in God, it’s always been like that. Consequently it means we have to live life., as Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible”. The difference for me between CCTV and God is that I’d rather be judged by the creator of the world, than by the creator of the webcam and whoever may be watching it on youtube, twitter or facebook.

Seven weeks a year of spiritual spring-cleaning through self-reflection and increasing self-awareness, might be helpful to anyone, religious or not, as they strive to become a better person. As the Scottish Prayer Book describes the penitent in the invitation to confession: “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life”. That just about sums up for me what Lent’s about. Have a fruitful time between now and Easter and enjoy the Easter Eggs all the more.

Blessings
James

Be Still and Know that I am God

Whilst reflecting on how we might structure our Lent Study on Prayer, I came across this quote by one of my favourite spiritual writers Henri Nouwen:

Deep silence leads us to realize that prayer is, above all, acceptance. When we pray, we are standing with our hands open to the world. We know that God will become known to us in the nature around us, in people we meet, and in situations we run into. We trust that the world holds God’s secret within and we expect that secret to be shown to us. Prayer creates that openness in which God is given to us. Indeed, God wants to be admitted into the human heart, received with open hands, and loved with the same love with which we have been created.

I remember that school prayers were always things with words and not much silence. Also we had to put our hands together and close our eyes tight shut, and woe betide anyone who tried to peek, because strangely teachers seemed to be able to pray with their eyes wide open. Looking round our congregations on a Sunday, I get the impression that most people must have been taught about prayer in much the same way and, of course, old habits die hard. So it comes as rather refreshing to read an article by another of my favourite spiritual writers Eugene Peterson who in writing about a third favourite writer says:

Annie Dillard prays with her eyes open. She says, Spread out your hands, lift up your head, open your eyes, and we’ll pray… She gets us into the theater that Calvin told us about, and we find ourselves in the solid biblical companionship of psalmists and prophets who watched the ‘hills skip like lambs’ and heard the ‘trees clap their hands,’ alert to God everywhere.

When we celebrate the Eucharist together, our celebration is part of entering into the mystery of God. Rudolf Otto, a German theologian, wrote: We experience God as Mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Basically, the unfathomable Mystery before whom we’re awestruck and stand trembling, yet find ourselves inexorably drawn into a relationship that’s also gracious and loving; attracting and fascinating us in ways we can’t fully explain.

It’s quite beyond us to have a loving relationship with the mysterious invisible God, through our own efforts. But because God wants to relate to us individually in love He’s given us the perfect helper in His Son Jesus Christ. Through Him God invites us into the love that we see demonstrated in the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity. The Son shows us the way to the Father through the power of the Spirit. God however remains a mystery.

Prayer is the mechanism through which we try to enter into that mystery. Prayer works through the power of the Spirit, rather than anything that we could possible achieve on our own. In prayer, the Spirit calls and we respond rather than prayer being something that we initiate. As St Paul says in his letter to the Romans:

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27

Come and explore these things in our Lent Study Groups on Prayer.

Blessings
James