Tuesday, April 18, 2017

go and tell!

Go and tell!
The women are told, go and tell. They do not ask what or say they do not understand or wonder where the clergy are when they are needed. They go and tell.
Talk about looking stupid.
“Hey, guys, ah…., we saw Jesus, he is risen from the dead.
“No, I have not been drinking.
“No the stress is not getting to me.
“Yes, really.
“Look, if you don’t believe me go and see for yourself….”
Easter goes on for seven weeks because it is a season of proclamation. We tend not to sing Easter hymns all that time and even the readings switch from assuring us that Jesus is risen to teaching us who Jesus is. But we have a job to do.
The women did not have advanced degrees in theology they simply went and said what they had seen.
“We have seen the Risen Lord!”

What have you seen? What have you come to know, to see as true? It is not clever stuff from books, it is just ordinary people meeting Jesus and knowing that we are known and loved. That is all. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Sermon

Alleluia! Christ is Risen indeed!
When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to Jesus tomb early on Sunday morning, they must have had heavy hearts. They had stayed home, as required, for the Sabbath but as soon as they were able, as the day was dawning, they made their way back to Jesus’ resting place. They found the tomb much as they had left it, guarded and sealed.

Matthew is different from the other Gospels – much more dramatic in his rendering of events. Just as he is the only Gospel writer to mention an earthquake at the crucifixion, now, also, he mentions an earthquake in the garden. Remember how the earthquake on Friday had drawn amazement from the centurion who said this man must be the son of God. This earthquake and the appearance of an angel frighten the soldiers guarding the tomb so much that they pass out. The angel even has the audacity to roll back the stone and sit on it. The power of the Roman Empire and the Jewish State mean nothing here.

The women do not faint or run away. They listen. They listen to the words of the Angel that Jesus has been raised, they examine the empty tomb and they are sent to summon the disciples. As they are going Jesus, himself, appears to them and gives them more explicit instructions that they are to meet in Galilee.

The women must have been afraid as both the angel and Jesus tell them not to be, but then their reactions are to worship and to take the message to the others. They are witnesses to something which is so unbelievable that ever since people have spent a lot of time and energy figuring out how this did not happen. Well at least not really.

When I was a teenager York Minster was struck with lightening which caused a bad fire which did a lot of structural damage. Many people thought it was a judgement from God for consecrating a guy called David Jenkins as Bishop. God was obviously a little directionally challenged as York is well over an hour from Durham whose cathedral sits up on a hill and would be an easy target for divine retribution.

Anyway, what David Jenkins had said was that if the Resurrection of Jesus was simple a magic trick (a conjouring trick with bones) it did not prove very much, other than God might be a good magician. He went on to say that the Resurrection “was not just a single event but a series of experiences which gradually convinced people that Jesus life, power, purpose and personality were actually continuing.”

I am not one of those people who is going to spend much time worrying about how God did things, what Jesus looked like, or whether you really could touch him or not. The simple fact is, that from that moment onwards people were utterly and completely transformed by the ongoing life of Christ in His followers and that continues today.

I may have told this story before, but when I was a university student I struggled to come to terms with life up until that point. It had been complicated and hard. Church had always been a refuge but gradually I moved away from this institution which seemed to have too many rules, too many rude and opinionated people and represented God, who I really did not want to believe in any more.

I was doing pretty well as an atheist, anger was really helpful. So, one Easter Eve, I decided to prive things once and for all. I happened to be walking past the church Eve at the time of the Easter Vigil. As I walked up the steps I said, “Right God, see how much I believe in you now!”
If there is an idiots guide to Atheism I would suggest that the first thing in it should be not to talk to God. Anyway, I was pretty good at standing at the back scowling until the Gloria. As some of you know it disappears during Lent in favor of something more solemn and when it returns the Easter Gospel is just around the corner. Well that was the end of my rebellion. My sulking attempt at disbelief was no match for the sheer power of the dawning of the Resurrection, of the story I knew would be recounted any moment.

But is that just wishful thinking, some sort of self-invented magic trick. God, after all, does not seem to do very much magic most of the time. We often find ourselves much more in fear than we do in reassurance. We find ourselves feeling confused and alone – so what is the point of this Resurrection thing – what difference does it make.

You can easily imagine it makes none at all. You will leave here today and walk back to the same reality which you left an hour ago – good or bad. Just like when I walked out of that Church that evening I would spend years gluing myself back together little pieces at a time. All I can say is what is true for me. It was true than and it is true now.

There are days when I am very afraid – I watch the news, see my kids go out on their own, realize I am moving to a phase of life, wondering about health and bills and all those so mundane and yet all-consuming things which chew at all of us. I could say simply. It is out of my hands, God is in control – but for me, that seems to be passing the buck. Those women on that morning had to prove the truth of that Resurrection experience through their actions.

You see the Resurrection of Jesus is something in which we participate – we share a risen life. We are asked not to be afraid, not because there is nothing which will scare us, but because we are redirected by today’s events. It is not a magic pill, it is a journey of engagement. It is a journey for which we are usually ill prepared and which we often wonder about. But stop long enough to kneel and the feet of Jesus and know that the Risen Lord knows exactly who you are and longs for you to reach out.

My younger self was right, the church is full of annoying, opinionated, hypocritical people – I did not find a new church to sure myself of this – I just realized I was one of them. We are all real people. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were real people. Whilst the excitement of those first few days, weeks, months might have given them a blindness to their precarious situation, there must have come a point where the words in the garden, “Do not be afraid” became a lot less about the extraordinary and a lot more about the ordinary.

Stop long enough to look. Stop long enough to listen, to touch and taste. Christ is Risen, allow that to be an invitation to participate in this journey of light and life.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Samaria Woman. Lent 3.

As we have seen before, the Gospel of John is differently put together than the other three Gospels. In chapter two we had the changing of the water into wine and then Jesus cleanses the Temple. In chapter 3 Nicodemus, the member of the Sanhedrin, comes to Jesus by night. Then, in this chapter, Jesus meets and talks with a woman at a well in the Samaritan city of Sychar.
The Gospels in Lent are stories of encounter. Jesus encounters himself and his own calling in the Temptation in the Wilderness. Nicodemus finds Jesus by night, today we have the Samaritan woman, next week the man born blind and, finally, Lazarus is raised from the dead. The lectionary deliberately skips through the Gospel in order to give face to those who have met, and been changed by, Jesus person to person.
This is, of course, a key message for Lent. That during Lent we are invited to so order our lives that we make space for Christ. We do this both by special acts of devotion and charity but also by reformation of life – that is the process of straightening ourselves up and trying to iron out some of the kinks which we know we have in the hope that year by year we will walk closer and closer to Jesus through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
There could not be a bigger contrast between Nicodemus and this woman. For one Nicodemus has a name, this woman is one among many who would have been considered outcasts amongst the Jews. She is a Samaritan, remember the hated Samaritans, she is a woman and, it turns out, a woman with a jaded background – not necessarily reflecting her own immorality, but definitely showing her own vulnerability in a male dominated society.
Yet Nicodemus comes by night, he is cautious and he takes the whole Gospel to make anything like a public declaration of faith. It is not until after the crucifixion that he is seen carrying that heavy load of spices to the tomb, apparently one of the followers of Jesus. This woman meets Jesus in broad daylight in what seems like a chance meeting. In broad daylight she runs to her fellow townsfolk, not afraid, apparently, of repercussions, or of not being believed – she runs because she is changed by this meeting.
Perhaps a key difference between the two is that Nicodemus is coming from a place of power and caution. He has always believed that he is OK. That his learning and grasp of the law means that he is faithful and chosen. This woman can publicly have none of that – although her conversation with Jesus shows that she has a grasp of history and theology – she is educated, but not in the formal way of the Pharisee and neither is her role in the public arena of the legislature.
To her, Jesus proclaims who he is, fully. And from this proclamation she becomes consumed as a messenger of the Good News. Her response to “ I am He,” is to tell people. This is a message of abundant gladness, overflowing joy, exuberance. It is a fountain which will not run dry and a spirit which will never thirst again. Through this brief encounter the woman is washed from the inside out and given value and purpose.
If you heard about the fires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, last year you may also have heard that Dollywood came close to disaster. A lot of people laugh at Dollywood but my children were raised on a diet of roller coasters and bluegrass and Dollywood checks both of those boxes. One of the resident singing groups is called the Kingdom heirs, notable in our family, because my late father-in-law, who never cared too much for Church, would go to their shows multiple times in a park visit. They are a Gospel Vocal group, and we are that family who sing in the car, yes, in four part harmony. This might not be your cup of tea but one of their songs is about this Gospel. The line which jumped out to me this week was:
“Give me a drink, that I should never thirst again, so she went away a’telling the news about the water of life.” She went away a’telling.
Appalachian culture is one of stories. If you are familiar with the mountains you know not to expect a short answer to most things, stories abound and you may as well settle in an enjoy them. Bluegrass songs often tell long stories, larger than life characters fill their notes. A’telling is a big part of life when there is nowhere to rush to, and nowhere to be except right where you are, on long winter nights.
The woman rushes, but she drops everything she is going to go and tell the story – she even leaves her water jug. I wonder when we are so compelled to simply stop everything and involve ourselves in a story. If you listen to talk radio, you may have driveway moments, when a story has grabbed your attention and you sit and listen to the end on the driveway instead of going into the house.
There are incidents and disasters which catch our attention but many become background noise as we put aside the distraction they cause. We have blurred the line between the reality and drama of life and the tales we weave around movies and television. We are no longer shocked by things which should make us stop and weep. The 24 hour news cycle moves us on to the next story, the next person, the next nation.
What do we engage with which causes us to change our path and leave the water jug at the well. What makes such an impression on us that we just have to move and move others?
Apathy was precisely what Jesus was calling the people of Israel to move away from and it was a hard all because we do not notice when we are there. There are so many calls in the Old Testament for people to behave as if their religious rituals mean something – Amos 5, Isaiah 11, 1 Samuel 15 to pull but a few chapters.
Perhaps this Gospel is a reminder to us that apathy, a lukewarm response, is not an option. Where do we encounter Jesus and do we remember that promise of water, water which is gushing up. You can see that image, water which is so eager to break out of its confines that it cannot be contained. With this water we become the same, so eager to tell the story, so eager that our story is known and valued by God, that we rise up, we gush.
There is a song from the Iona Community in Scotland about the Holy Spirit, in it the Holy Spirit is referred to as the enemy of apathy. We, the church, are not a painful trickle of vaguely good news, we are a mighty roar of excitement and wonder. We are those who are send to challenge apathy, not become its victim.
“But those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty.” Imagine that. Never thirsty – unless we shrug, and say “That’s nice” and fill our pitcher and go to our house and drink alone. Then we are thirsty, really thirsty.