Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Lent Five: Gethsemane: Pauline West

Matthew 26:36 – 56

They went as usual to the Mount of Olives, a working plantation of olive trees; an ordinary place providing a livelihood for the people who tended it. They had gone there every evening that week after a day of teaching and confrontation in the Temple. This night they stopped in a grove called Gethsemane, an ordinary place, a place that gathered them in and gave them rest.
This night they needed that rest more than ever. The mood of the group had changed. The disciples were tired, very tired, not just physically but emotionally. They were drained, confused, fearful, struggling to cope and there were only 11 of them, one was missing. They were too exhausted to wonder where he was.

Jesus was different as well. He was agitated; preoccupied; struggling with something the disciples did not know or understand. Leaving the group to rest under the trees he took Peter, James and John and moved away a little. He wanted the support of close friends. Telling them to stay awake with him, for his sake, he went a little further and prayed, wrestling with God; struggling to face death, the physical suffering of crucifixion and the spiritual battle the power of which he had first experienced in the wilderness. He came back to be with the three and found them asleep. The disappointment added to his burden, but he saw their vulnerability and urged Peter, at least, to stay awake; stick with me for your sake. The denial was a real possibility that had the potential to destroy Peter. They could not manage it; the body demanded sleep. Jesus was alone.

Or was he? The Father; the Spirit; the Scriptures; the twelve legions of angels all were there to give support, but Jesus alone had to make that final decision to complete his mission through the cross. He prayed; he wrestled; he wept; he went through agony to reach the final peace of his decision. The peace that told him this was the way; the peace that filled the familiar sacred place of rest.

The disciples were rudely awakened by the arrival of the missing Judas with a crowd armed with swords and clubs, a disproportionate response to the arrest of one man; an arrest that makes my blood run cold and my eyes fill with tears each time I read about it. Galvanised into action the loyal disciples started a trail of violence, but Jesus stopped them. A very different Jesus: a Jesus in command of the situation; a Jesus accepting the kiss of betrayal from one he calls friend, a Jesus allowing the arrest; a Jesus who had made the decision that was sealed with the peace that passes all understanding. A peace found in an ordinary working olive grove called Gethsemane.

We all need a Gethsemane; an ordinary familiar resting place where we can be with God struggling, laughing, crying or even sleeping. A place that will refresh; give us healing; clarify; give us strength; help us to face what disturbs; what hurts; what makes us fearful. A place maybe to hear the call we do not want, but God says it is OK trust me.

The picture is of one such place for me, yes there can be more than one; it is part of my garden. The acer is producing its autumn colours; the astilbes have finished flowering leaving the stalks to sway in the breeze; the berries of the cotoneaster are turning red giving food in the winter months; the rocks of the wall glint in the sunshine. Living and dying, light and dark, jumble and clarity, hard and soft are there side by side as they were in Gethsemane and in it all there is God. 

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Lent 4: The Last Supper: Gill Roberts

Matthew 26.17-29

What started as a traditional Passover meal with His disciples – a quietly joyful celebration of the nation’s rescue out of slavery – suddenly became a strange and questionable showstopper.  “One of you will betray me”, Jesus says.  Not exactly what you expect to hear as you recline around the dinner table.  Nothing more guaranteed to grab everyone’s attention and change the atmosphere from any sense of celebration to horror, disbelief and sadness.   The comment, “They were very sad…” must be something of an understatement! Their chins must have hit the table!  Sometimes the Bible account leaves a lot to the imagination.

As we examine this picture by Fr Sieger Kὄder the moment is captured. 

Look at their faces.    

No-one knows where to look. 

Who could it possibly be? 

It’s not me!

We see Jesus’ face reflected in the goblet of wine.
Is it John who can’t bear to look up at Him? …..

Peter whose expression says, “You’ve got to be mistaken!”

Others around the table look at Him in bewilderment.

One looks down, trying to work out who it could be or wondering whether he’s mis-heard.

And there, in the far distant shadow stands one about to leave the room.  It was night.

What was going on in their minds at that moment?  Every one different.  Each with his own thought, opinion, idea……  I bet it’s him.  I never thought you could trust him.…… Has Jesus made a mistake?  Could someone have told Him a lie - said something to cause trouble?

And the atmosphere has changed from trust and family togethernesst?  A group centred around the Master has become a flock scattered. 

But Jesus draws them back to the point of it all.  You see this bread and this wine.  They represent my body and blood – my very life – given for you.  But why?  What is it all about?
They eat and drink – as they are bidden – but still have no real idea of what this ‘covenant’ is all about.

How do WE spend those few moments around the Lord’s Table?  Are we able to hold ourselves in His presence and see ourselves in His eyes – looking up at us from out of the wine?  Do we come able to see each other as those for whom Christ died – or do we struggle – wondering who should or shouldn’t be there?  Can we keep our focus?

For many years – and still occasionally now – I recited the old hymn in the quietness at the table -

Thy life was given for me
Thy blood, O Lord, was shed
That I might ransomed be
And quickened from the dead.
Thy life was given for me.
What have I given for Thee?

And the final verse,

O let my life be given,
My years for Thee be spent
World fetters all be riven
And joy with suffering blent.
You gave yourself for me
I give myself to Thee.

I’m sure the old English of this hymn would have some of my current church friends in fits!  (Even as we sit around the table, we can ruin moments like these for each other)  But the challenge still remains.  It’s still a serious moment.  Jesus gave His all for me.  He should have nothing less than my all – especially my love for others around me.

And there is that promise that one day – when we shall be able to focus fully on Him with no distractions - we shall drink with Him in “My Father’s Kingdom”!                                                

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Lent 3: An unamed woman anoints Jesus: Christine Hutt

Matthew 26 v 6-13

This is an extraordinary story of a woman who enters a male-only gathering and touches Jesus.  It was the custom to pour a few drops of perfume on a guest when they arrived at a house or sat down to a meal, but this use of ointment seems extravagant.  What the woman is doing by anointing Jesus is taking on the position of a religious leader, for in the Old Testament only a priest or prophet would do anointing. We are reminded of Psalm 23 ‘you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows’.

The disciples don’t mention the anointing but are critical of the waste and expense, and feel that the money could have been used for the poor.  Jesus, however, accepts this gift from this unnamed woman and says to the disciples ‘why must you make this woman feel uncomfortable’.  She must already be feeling uncomfortable in this all male environment, and by not knowing what Jesus’ reaction would be to her impulsive act of devotion.  Jesus affirms the woman:  ‘she has done a beautiful thing for me’. 

Why are we not told her name? We have names for many of the people in the gospel stories, the name of a blind man healed by Jesus, the names of people who asked questions of Jesus, the name of the man who carried Jesus’ cross, but the women are unimportant; they are not allowed to be in positions of leadership.  However, her act of devotion is included in the scriptures and ‘what she has done will be told, in memory of her’.

           Malcolm Guite’s poem ‘The anointing at Bethany’ reminds us that ‘the whole room richly fills to feast the senses’, and how smells can bring back memories from the past in a vivid way.  But what strikes me most about this story is how true love is uncalculating, and how love ‘isn’t love till you give it away’.  This is put very well by Maya Angelou in her poem ‘Touched by an angel’

               …We are weaned from our timidity
               in the flush of love’s light
               we dare be brave
               and suddenly we see
               that love costs all we are
               and will ever be
               yet it is only love
               which sets us free.

Jesus said ‘when she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for
burial’. As we go through Lent let us remember this story of Christian devotion for our Lord,
shown in a simple costly act of love, as we follow the one who loved the world so much that
he ‘humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross’, and may it
empower and inspire us to become instruments of that love. 

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Lent 2: Jesus in The Temple: Heather Andrews

Matthew 21, 1-13  

What strange contrasts in this reading… a tumultuous day…

The peace-loving Lord who approaches Jerusalem not on a war-horse but in a different way, Jesus making a point about the kind of Kingship he represents.. ‘…humble and riding on a donkey’.  The crowds greet him with cheerful shouts, yet within a short space of time the Good News Bible says ‘When Jesus entered Jerusalem the whole city was thrown into an uproar.  Who is he, the people asked?

Who is he indeed?
Who is he for you?
Who is he for me?

He contravenes the expectations of the people, he often comes to us in a way that unsettles and totally surprises us…
He comes with peace, he comes with challenge, he comes indeed as ‘God of surprises’.

From v. 12, we read of Jesus going into the Temple, and driving out all who were buying and selling there.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and pigeon-sellers.

When we visited Oberammergau for the passion play, the noise and clatter of this scene came as a great shock after the gentle cheering and praising of the people who had led Jesus into Jerusalem.

Coins tumbled all over the place, people fell over, there was shouting and swearing in response!   Jesus stormed into centre-stage and furniture flew.  To see Jesus raging was a huge shock.

As the daughter of a shop-keeper (I didn’t mean that to sound like Maggie Thatcher) I have always been anxious about this bit of the bible!   The temple traders will have been well established, part of the noisy and busy scenery of the Temple business.  Yet suddenly, with a shout, and legend has it, with a whip in his hand, Jesus overwhelms the story with the physicality of his presence.  With arms flailing, throws the furniture about, scattering money, causing shouts of protest, upsetting peoples’ calculations, damaging their livelihood, disrupting the usual system of preparation for worship.  I imagine animals and birds flustering about as they make their bid for freedom, rather than being sacrificed…

The sheer power of Jesus bursts into our vision.  He is challenging business ethics.   He is challenging priorities… he is willing to call it as he sees it, naming the traders as thieves, presumably as they make profit from the poorest at their point of deep need.

He is making a point about not needing animal sacrifice… his own loving self-giving is about to be the once-for-all sacrifice necessary for salvation.

All these things are challenges to our own lifestyles as we enter into Lent…

Fairtrade fortnight also challenges us as to our buying habits, our concern for the two-thirds world.  Our personal shopping, and our church provision…
Our motivations come under scrutiny.

Lent is an opportunity to look at the power and the wisdom of God, as we see it in Jesus.

The power to challenge and change, the physical action as righteous anger makes a very visible protest, the wisdom to pick a moment and make it count.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Lent 1: Christ in the Desert: Ian Green

Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoi 
Matthew 4.1-11

As Lent begins we travel once more with Jesus into the Wilderness and that’s what this painting by the Russian artist Ivan Kramskoi depicts.

Kramskoi was self-taught and went to the Crimea to feel what it might be like living in a deserted mountainous region.  His painting now hangs in Moscow.

Originally he painted it without the background.  It shows Jesus marooned in the Judean Desert immediately after his baptism.  This was a Spirit led moment as Jesus contemplates the future and makes choices about the present.  It was painted in 1872 but it shows a timeless dilemma – how do we use our power, our choices and our lives for God and for neighbour?  How do we live the values of The Kingdom of God in our everyday routines?

Often when battling with these issues it feels as if they stubbornly remain unresolved. That’s why I’m glad that Kramskoi eventually changed his mind and added the background.

That’s because the light is breaking on the far horizon.  Against the desolation of the hard rock plateau that was the Judean Wilderness there is a gentle hint of dawn, of warmth, of the sun piercing the night and bringing the fresh prospect of a new day.

Faith is about believing, living and longing for God’s light to pierce our darkness.

Perhaps, for me at least, that feels like a fresh thought this Lent.

I’m so used to thinking of light as a theme for Advent and Christmas – yet Kramskoi’s painting and Isaiah’s words remind me at the start of our long Lent journey this year that the choices we make in the desert, in the darkness, are then to be lived through in the light of God’s love once we have come down from that wilderness plateau.

Of course Kramskoi’s painting isn’t bathed in brilliant sunshine – there is just a hint of dawn and maybe light in Lent is essentially to be viewed in terms of longing.

On Good Friday there was darkness in the middle of the day for three hours.  Whether that’s a poetic or actual description the point is we all know the reality of the dark night of the soul. Yet we long for the dawn of Easter Day.

In fact, we learn again and again as we go through life that dawn follows night and light pierces gloom.

Yet often we are called to wait – to linger in the night even as we long for this dawn.  And to make that journey not with despair but with patience and hope – believing in the light, even when it is dark.

Can we hang on to the thrilling conviction that we are not moving towards the darkness but travelling towards the light? That, I think, for me is a goal for this Lent.

So Kramskoi paints a Jesus alone in the desert yet dawn about to break in the background.

The hymn writer puts it like this - Longing for light, we wait in darkness. 

Ian Green