Sunday, 21 April 2019

Easter Day: Gill Roberts

I don’t really do happy. 

The sort of films I take my friends to see are ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Shadowlands’ – serious, sober stuff!

I quite often find Easter Day disappointing – even depressing.
I can wake up and can’t help but sing,

Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
our triumphant holy day,
who did once upon the cross
suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia!
Hymns of praise then let us sing Alleluia!
unto Christ our heavenly King!
who endured the cross and grave!
sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia!
It is glorious, that first moment of realisation of resurrection!  I’m thrilled.

I can start the day thrilled with the knowledge of the resurrection, go to church for breakfast and communion but somehow it can fail to capture the atmosphere of the Day and it deteriorates.  There is an anti-climax.  In fact, just the opposite of the way things were for the followers of Jesus on the first Easter Day.  Easter Day didn’t start off being happy for them, did it?

They must have spent the Sabbath in an agony of horror, anxiety about whether they too would end up on crosses.  Their Lord had gone.  The One who was to have saved the world was no longer with them.  They were leaderless, rudderless.  What would happen now?  The women couldn’t stop crying.  Things didn’t improve.  There was nothing they could do on the Sabbath.  It was a woman who started off the activity on Sunday and for her it was
·       the shock of the empty tomb.  The horror of someone having stolen the Lord’s body.
For the men the result was that Mary seemed to have lost the plot – thought she’d ‘seen the Lord’.

Then John & Peter, checking it out, to their utter disbelief found it exactly as she said – though John had an inkling of what might have happened.  But how could it have happened?  Even though they remembered He’d said something about ‘the third day’.
An emergency meeting of disciples was called – and HE comes!  “PEACE”, He says!  How can they have peace?!  He’s there – but He’s not as He was.  Their thoughts were in turmoil because things have changed.  After three fantastic years of following Him, going where He went, hearing what He said, taking it all in – now it seemed they were to go it alone.  How could He be with them always?

Meanwhile the Emmaus couple meet a stranger, eat with Him and discover Him to be ‘the Lord’.  With burning hearts they can’t help but run the whole way back to the upper room to discover He’s been there too – and that Thomas has had his own special meeting.
What a day!  Fears, doubts, strange happenings, questions, no real answers, yet excitement, anticipation.  What does the future hold?

“Blessed are those who have not seen but believe.”

“This really is ‘counter-culture’ – that the most reliable foundation for a human life is something we cannot see, or touch, or prove.  How amazing is that!” (Richard Kidd on BURG retreat)
But the pains which he endured, Alleluia!
our salvation have procured!

now above the sky he's King!

where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!

Friday, 19 April 2019

Good Friday: Pauline West

I have been attending a local Lent Group. We start as you might expect with coffee and biscuits, and carry on being fed with scripture and sharing our experiences and the book we are following.  It is a discipline to go every Monday morning, but the rewards are good. It led me to thinking of the disciple band that followed Jesus; the good times and the learning experiences they had together. They chose to follow; they chose to continue following when others left; they continued in the discipline and it was good. The disciple band exploded into crowds as Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; excited expectant crowds, it was good. The week continued busy and noisy up to the start of the Sabbath on Friday, by that time nothing was good for the disciple band or Jesus.

As I thought of Jesus during his ministry; during that week; during that day I saw a lonely figure whose loneliness and isolation increased until that cry of “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” which resolves itself into the final words “Father into your hands I commend my Spirit”.
In this time of Lent when I am being fed in so many ways, I find myself haunted by the loneliness and isolation of Jesus. It is as if he stands among the beauty that surrounds me; the companionship of friends and neighbours and challenges me to understand the isolation of the discipline of discipleship. I need to ask myself in what way, if any, do I take up my cross. How do I tie in the comfort of the Lent group with that lonely, agonising walk to Golgotha?  

Some of the trees around me are already greening up for spring and the cherry; magnolia and camellia are brilliant with their flowers, but the older beech, ash and oak still stand with their bare dark branches. They call me to seek the wisdom of God who although surrounded by men and women made in his own image  chose to stand apart and die alone so that they and we may know what it means to forgive and be forgiven; to love and be loved as God does.
Perhaps I am called, as the sorrowing women and men finally did, just to stand by the cross and weep and wonder and trust him to lead me on.     

Friday, 12 April 2019

Palm Sunday:Christine Hutt

Luke 19 28-40

The story of the triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem is so familiar to us as it is celebrated each year on Palm Sunday, but we need to stop and think what it was like for those who first experienced it. 
Here Jesus decides to enter the holy city, not quietly, but openly in a planned act of defiance, by riding on a young donkey, showing that he was a ‘king’ coming in peace;  he was acting out his message in a similar way to some of the Old Testament prophets. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book ‘The Last Week’ talk of two processions, the peasant procession led by Jesus entering Jerusalem by the East Gate and Pontius Pilate with his entourage entering by the West Gate, anxious to remind people who held true power and authority.  I imagine the people resented the presence of Pontius Pilate, reminding them of the domination of the Romans, in an occupied country. But did the people really welcome Jesus?  As Malcolm Guite says in his poem ‘a Sonnet for Palm Sunday’

The Saviour comes. But will I welcome Him?
Oh crowds of easy feelings make a start;
They raise their hands, get caught up in the singing
And think the battle won. Too soon they’ll find
The challenge, the reversal he is bringing
Changes their tune.

Jesus was not a king who lived in a palace, his kingdom was ‘not of this world’.  Besides two processions, there were two bowls of water in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life:  Pilate washed his hands to demonstrate he had no part in the decision to crucify Jesus, but Jesus took a bowl of water and knelt to wash his disciples’ feet.  We follow a king who came to serve, not to be served, a king who suffered and died, but who rose again.  He calls us to follow his way of peace, to bring justice to the oppressed, to be salt and light in the world, to demonstrate his love by the way we serve other people, especially those on the margins of our society.  Let us ask ourselves ‘The Saviour comes. But will I welcome Him?

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Lent 5: Jesus anointed: Ian Green

John 12.1-18

An uncomfortable juxtaposition between abundance and poverty dominates the gospel reading for this fifth Sunday of Lent.

Jesus is anointed with an ointment which probably cost up to a year's wages.  It was a devotion of extravagance.  Such anointings were deemed appropriate either at a coronation or funeral; so the deed rightly points us to Good Friday and the King upon the cross.

Yet, straight away it's criticised.  Would it not have been more Christ-like to spend that money on the poor?  Well, apparently not.

Most translations have Jesus responding to his critics by saying 'The poor are always with you.'  Implying that as he was only here for a limited time, such focused devotion was O.K.

One biblical linguist I read this week has another take on that verse.  She says although it's normally translated in the indicative it's just as correct to use the imperative.  Confused?  Well, if we did put Jesus' words in the imperative they would read something like this (as a command) 'Keep the poor always alongside you'.

I've found that such a helpful interpretation as there are surely times when we want our worship and devotion to have a sense of extravagance about it.  It's the rationale behind the building of great cathedrals.

Yet, at the same time, at one and the same moment, we need always to remember to 'keep the poor alongside us'.  To be open-hearted, kind and generous in the living out of our faith.

This Sunday's reading doesn't sideline the poor but places human compassion and the awareness of the needs of others constantly at the centre of all our worship and praise of God.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Lent 4: The Prodigal Son: Heather Andrews

Luke 15

This week, in Lent we think of the parable of the Prodigal Son, which Henri Nouwen in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son calls ‘a story of Homecoming’. A story of a Father and his two sons.

I have twice had the privilege of seeing this painting in the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg. To stand before it, and have the opportunity to be embraced by it is an amazing experience.

There is the intriguing depiction of the shadowy figures ‘watching-on’ Perhaps the tall, solemn figure to the right as you look is the forbidding elder brother; who is the man seated? And the woman stood behind the father, is it possibly, the boy’s Mother? And right at the back of the painting, top left as you look, isn’t there another figure, which to me looks like a younger woman, in the shadows, scarcely shown, yet present, perhaps a sister? The sense of a family drama, with the elderly Father, and the repentant Son, being welcomed home.

So many beautiful moments to reflect on as this shows something of the reason why Jesus gave his life for the forgiveness of sin and the salvation of all who will turn – return – to God’s loving embrace.

The poverty of the son, his precious bare feet, soiled with the world’s dirt. His humble, trusting, nearness to the father he has scorned.

The love and weariness in the face of the father. The famous depiction of the two hands resting on the boy’s thin shoulders, as a man’s hand and a woman’s hand… something of the motherly/fatherly welcome we can ourselves receive as we turn again, to where in the deepest most forgiving love, we belong. We truly belong, in the loving embrace of God our Father, Creator. In the presence of a family, redeeming humanity which has set itself of a riotous path far from home.

I would rather know myself to be prodigal daughter than the uptight pious brother who has never left the father’s house. What healing, what new life, what love is poured into those who turn towards Home, in the nearer presence of the Father.

As I face the declining months of my own father’s life, I know I will, at the end trust in the forgiving grace and welcome of God, for him, and for me.
There is a poem called ‘Love’s embrace’ which comes from The Weaver, the Word and Wisdom… I regret I have mislaid the book and can’t give the author…
In Love’s embrace:

I feel the weary weight of your arms
as you embrace me
And the weary wait of your years
of grief and loss.

You who were father and mother to me
Have no reason now
To offer open-handed welcome
When I have deeply wounded you.

I can only bring a wasted, hollow shell
Of who I was, a shadow
Of your hopes and dreams, your child
Who followed an empty vision.

Yet your welcome is overwhelming
Far beyond my dark imagining.
Your passion and generosity
Flows in tears and gifts, too real.

There is jealousy here, a quiet cynicism
And a surly envy.
Those who doubt me know me well
And question the wisdom of welcome.

I too doubt myself, can I live this life?
But here, in Love’s embrace,
Is the seed of grace, the heart of hope
and the beginning of a new journey.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Lent 3: A sobering thought: A gracious reflection: Pauline West

Luke 13.1-19
I am writing this blog after two appalling events; one is the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand and the other a shooting in Utrecht in the Netherlands. I would add to that a personal touch as just three days ago I helped with the funeral services of my brother’s partner who died of cancer. It is sad to say that none of these events is unusual. Deliberate violence; appalling accidents; debilitating and fatal illness are part of living here on this earth.  Life here is not perfect because we are not perfect.

This is seen in the Lent reading for this week. People ask Jesus about the violent death of the Galileans murdered by Pilate; he in turn adds the story of the workers killed by the collapse of the tower of Siloam. People were asking the age old question “Why did this happen”, to ordinary people, to good people, to people we knew and loved and its frequent additional question “What had they done to deserve this death”. Jesus in effect answers they had done nothing to warrant death in this way. These things happen to people living on this planet.

That sounds harsh even though it is the truth. Equally Jesus’ words of warning recorded here are harsh. He says to his questioners that these people were no worse sinners than you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Was it a threat or a warning or a desperate call to look at themselves and turn to God?

I think it was an urgent plea to look at themselves; to see where they were with God; how far they had drifted away from God; how much they had forgotten his commands and his calling to worship and serve him. That is one way we can use the terrible stories in the news; we can stop and think of our reactions; let these stories question our motives and attitudes and challenge us to see how far we maybe from God’s attitude and response and act on what we learn.

Jesus then tells the parable of the barren fig tree seemingly useless, not bearing fruit and the gardener who pleads for it to be given another chance. It reminded me of the story of the true vine in John 15 and God, the gardener who cares for the branches so they will bear more fruit.

The harsh words of Jesus are not to be dismissed they are to be wrestled with, and when their truth for ourselves is faced up to and acted on we find the redemptive grace of God feeding us with his tender loving care.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Lent 2: Hens and Foxes: Tim Mountain

Luke 13.31-35

Hens and foxes don’t mix very well. I have a friend who keeps hens at the bottom of his garden. He knows what it’s like to experience the carnage, the distressing blood-and-feathers-evidence, of a fox getting into the pen.

That fox’ is how Jesus refers to Herod; not so much wily and clever as we tend to interpret the image today, but to the Jewish mind, worthless and contemptuous. A good-for-nothing leader who got his way by bullying and coercion, threats of force and violence, by wielding power unjustly. He wasn’t interested in winning over people’s minds and hearts; compulsion and enforcement were the means to secure their allegiance to king and country.

God’s way is different. Not imposition but invitation. Yearning.  ‘… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.’ The image can’t be pressed too far (acknowledging the rawness of nature, red in tooth and claw – even hens) but here are chicks clustering around their mother to seek safety and protection, warmth and the company of siblings, instinctively trusting that she will look after them in their defencelessness and weakness.

God, unlike Herod, is not tyrannical or coercive. God appeals and persuades, pursuing mind and heart through love. In Jesus, God renounces the exercise of power and walks a path of voluntary helplessness and vulnerability, especially in the days leading to Calvary.  God’s love is announced on the cross in arms outstretched, inviting all who come to be enfolded in embrace.

The tragedy of course, is that Israel, represented in Jerusalem, had walked away from God’s offer of protection, nurture and to be lovingly held. Later Luke tells us that Jesus wept over the city (19:41); such is the heartbreak he feels because of his fellow Jews ignoring and resisting God’s overtures, and the calamity that awaits them … from foxes like Herod … like the Empire.

In this Lenten season of self-examination perhaps we might review our own style of leadership or the leadership in our churches (or indeed, that which we see in our workplaces and the political sphere). In what ways is it fox-like or hen-like, and how might we try to challenge the one or nurture the other?  And I wonder also if some of us, having strayed a bit too far recently, might be wise to seek out and return to the shelter of God’s wings?