Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stilling the Storm...and Shouting at the TV.

Mark 4: 35-41 Jesus Calms a Storm

It’s been pretty stormy recently, hasn’t it? The weather has been pretty awful, all across the country. I know its been windy in my garden, because my bird table blew over! We warm southerners have had it pretty easy though, haven't we...compared to the blizzards and floods that other parts of the country have been having.

It’s been pretty stormy on the stock market too, hasn’t it. We’ve had banks that have gone into receivership, or public ownership. We’ve had billions of pounds wiped off the value of shares. And most importantly, we’ve seen a rise in unemployment, with no immediate prospect of any new jobs being created. I know that some of you have been affected by that too...either directly, or by knowing people close to you who have lost their jobs.

There’s a story in the Bible, that we will hear a little later, about the time that Jesus and his disciples went out in a storm. It was a proper ‘hoolie’ - battering waves, and gale force winds. Incredibly, Jesus was asleep in the front of the boat...snoring away through the chaos. His disciples woke him up, and said “Rabbi! Don’t you care if we drown?!” Jesus reaction was to stand up, and speak to the winds. “Quiet! Be Still!” And immediately the wind died down, and it was completely calm. Then comes the sting in the tale. Jesus turns to his disciples and says “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

This story, and so many others like it, are put in the Bible to challenge us. Sometimes we get a story of Jesus’ mastery over human stilling a storm, or healing the sick, or raising the dead, or feeding the hungry. Sometimes we just get a simple saying from Jesus - like “Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden...and I will give you rest”. All of these stories and sayings are pointing to one great big challenge. It goes something like this... “Trust me. Put your faith in me. I can control the winds, walk on the water, and raise the dead. Don’t you think I’m up to coping with your problems too?”

Now, we have to be careful here. We mustn’t fall into the trap that some people do...the trap of believing that if we have enough faith, God will solve all our problems, and give us each a gold Rolls Royce into the bargain. God doesn’t work like that. If he did, the millions of starving Christians in Africa - who pray every day for God’s help - would have food on their table.

No. What God does is far deeper, far more subtle - and ultimately far more wise. God moves our respond to one another’s needs. A world in which God miraculously interfered with every human tragedy would be a strange world indeed. It would be a world in which human beings would stop growing and developing....we would stop learning to do things for ourselves...we would stop filling the God-given potential that is inside of each one of us. A world in which God miraculously interfered with every lost job, or tragic case of poverty, would be a world in which we would not need to look out for one another. Generosity, giving, sharing - would all be unnecessary. There would be no need to give to charity, no need to spread love, no need to look out for our neighbour.

And what would the result be? We would become people who had forgotten how to love; and who didn’t understand the sheer pleasure of giving. We would be people who would only need to look out for our own needs...we would be become takers, instead of givers. We would be grabbers, instead of sharers. I might even suggest that we would become the very kind of people, the ones who are paid millions of pounds by Barclays, or Lloyds, or the City of London...the ones who have caused the very economic crisis we now face. If God miraculously intervenec in all human tragedy, every man, woman and child would only be interested in what they could get for themselves...not how much they can give to others. Our growth into being all that we can be - releasing and discovering everything that it means to be made in the image of God - all of that would be gone. We would be stunted, unimaginative, self-centered, self-absorbed echoes of what it means to be fully and completely human.

So, when Jesus says “Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden”, or when he says “Take my yoke upon you”, or when he says “Why are you so afraid; Do you still have no faith?” he is inviting us to discover, with him and through him, what it means to be fully developed, human beings... people who have discovered what it means to be made in the image of God.

The protection from the storm that Jesus offers is protection from the very worst of is protection from the sinful, selfishness that we are all capable of. By his transforming the very power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus offers us the chance to become more and more like him...and to still the storm of our own hearts.

One way in which he stills the storm is to offer us forgiveness...and the chance to start again. One of the joys of being a follower of Christ - a Christian - is the joy of knowing that however much we have failed, there is forgiveness, healing, and the promise of new life...

So let us turn to God together, in the words of this confession...and seek the forgiveness that is freely offered...

Lord Jesus, we confess to you that sometimes we forget to share your love with others.
There are many things we wish we had done for others - but somehow never got round to doing.
There are many things we wish we had not done - which have hurt others, and you.
Please forgive us and free us from our sins. Help us to lead a new life following in your footsteps. Amen

Absolution:Almighty God, who created you in his image, so that you might reflect his glory, and live out his divine life, forgive you and free you from all your sins. The Lord transform you, so that you may grow more and more, day by day, into the likeness of Christ. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

So...what have we established? We’ve established, I hope, that Jesus is willing, and able - by the power of his Spirit - to transform our lives, and the lives of the whole world....if we will only let him. If only, after 2000 years, the world had listened to Jesus’ simple call to love God, and love our neighbour. What kind of a world could this be.

Do you ever shout at the TV screen? You know what it’s like. You are watching a quiz...maybe that awful, soul destroying thing called the Weakest Link. Anne Robinson asks a question. A simple question...because any question that you know the answer to is simple...isn’t it? “Who was the captain of the first Starship Enterprise?”. You know the answer. It’s James Kirk. But then the stupid, ignorant peasant on the TV screen says something utterly incomprehensible. “It was Captain Spock, wasn’t it?”. “NO!” you scream at the TV. “How could you be so stupid? How could you not know that most basic piece of Sci-Fi history. It was Kirk!”

Sometimes I imagine Jesus as being a bit like that. After all, we know he lost his rag with stupid people, from time to time. He turned over the money-changers’ tables, accusing them turning his father’s house of prayer into a den of thieves. He turned on the Pharisees, many times...calling them a ‘brood of vipers’ and ‘whitewashed tombs’...clean on the outside, and full of death and decay on the inside. So its not too great a leap to imagine Jesus, right now, saying the world of high finance and international banking “NO! What do you think you are doing? How could you possibly imagine that you could sit there, grabbing all the world’s resources for yourself, without imagining there would be consequences.”

Just like me, watching the Weakest Link and saying “If only they had listened to me!”, I have a picture of Jesus watching the world with sadness and perhaps even anger. He sees people messing up their lives, or messing up the lives of others. He’s calling out to them, through their consciences, through the church, through the pages of scripture, through priests and prophets. He’s calling out and offering his help. But the world doesn’t take a blind bit of notice. The result? The world much. The world rejects God, and God’s ways, in the endless, ceaseless quest for more stuff. When all along, God just wants to make their lives SO much more fulfilling...SO much more meaningful...SO much more complete.

So, at the end of the day, it comes down to a choice. How are we going to choose to live. Do we choose the way of God, or the way of the world? Do we choose the way of sharing, of the way of getting more stuff? Do we choose to become more and more fully human...more and more like Jesus...or more and more like the shadowy echo of real humanity that the powerful men of the world seem to generate?

The choice is ours. The choice is yours. But if you will let him...Jesus offers calm in the storm.


Friday, February 6, 2009

A woman's place...

Mark 1:v29-39: The Healing of Peter's Mother-in-Law...and many demon-possessed people

I'm sorry to have to tell you that I live with an uncomfortable truth. It's something I'm a little embarrassed about...and its something that is only too plain for everyone to see. The fact is, I am a fat man. There, I've said it.

Whose fault is this? Am I fat because I eat too much chocolate? Or is it because I would rather eat cement than take any exercise? No. Those things may be true. But in my house, the blame falls fair and square on Clare!

You see, before I was married, I was as thin as a rake. Seriously. I was like a golf-club...a long thin stick with feet sticking out at the end! You see, my approach to life has always been to live life at full pelt. My father-in-law once observed that I have only two speeds...stop, and go-go-go. Before I was married, I would sometimes go for days without stopping to eat. Eating was a chore...something that got in the way of all the other exciting things I was trying to get done. But Clare put a stop to all that. She takes the trouble to prepare delicious food, and to put it in front of me...telling me to stop working and have dinner. So, you see, it can't be my fault that I'm fat. It has to be Clare's!

She does this, of course, because she is a brilliant wife, partner and friend. She looks after me - and tries to moderate my tendency to be a workaholic. In many ways, Clare reminds me of St Peter's mother-in-law...whom we just heard about in our Gospel reading.

Did you notice what happened, as soon as Jesus had healed Peter's mother-in-law? According to Mark's account, 'the fever left her, and she began to serve them'.(Mark 1:31) Clare would do that. She takes such pleasure in hosting people in our house, that if Jesus healed her of a fever, I honestly believe she would immediately get up and start serving tea and biscuits too.

Now...a cautionary note. When we read about women like this, especially in the context of Jesus' time - the world of Roman-occupied Palestine - we need to understand the context in which what we read is taking place. What we mustn't do is assume that what worked for that culture automatically works for ours. We certainly shouldn't take this story - of Peter's serving-mother-in-law as some kind of biblical warrant for all women to be chained to the cooker. For a start, (in Luke Chapter 10) Jesus clearly didn't believe that. Remember the story of Mary and Martha? Remember how Jesus declared that Mary, the sister who had taken time out from domestic chores to listen to him, had chosen the better way?

Instead, let me invite you to see beyond the battle of the sexes, and into the underlying story. The important thing to note here, I think, is not that it was a woman who set about the task of serving the men... but that this particular woman, in this particular time and place, saw that serving was an honourable, noble and worthwhile thing for her to do.

This is quite simply because the notion of 'serving others' is absolutely at the heart of the Gospel. And that Peter's mother-in-law clearly found fulfillment in the act of serving.

Let's move on to look at the rest of this reading. You will remember, I hope, that after the event at Peter's house, Jesus went on to heal many sick people, and to cast out many demons. But as he did so, he commanded the demons not to speak...the text says, "because they knew him" or "because they knew who he was".

This is actually a recurring theme of St Mark's gospel. Time and time again, after Jesus has healed people, he commands them not to tell others. Then, when Peter confesses his belief that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus immediately warns him not to tell anyone. Later, after some of the disciples see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus again tells them not to tell anyone.

Why would this be? Why would Jesus repeatedly tell people not to talk about him - not to tell others what powerful miracles they have seen? Why would he command the demons not to declare who he is? What was Jesus hiding?

The answer comes perhaps in the only time during Mark's gospel when Jesus willingly says who he is. It comes when he is before the 'Sanhedrin' - the court of the Chief Priests - just before he is led out to die.

You'll find the story in Mark chapter 14. In verse 61, the high priest asks Jesus "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?". Jesus replied, "I am..." Why now? Why does Jesus wait until this moment to publicly declare who he is?

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gives us a clue. In a fascinating book called "Christ on Trial" he says, " where we see what truth is is that this trial establishes. Jesus before the high priest has no leverage in the world; he is denuded of whatever power he might have had. Stripped and bound before the court, he has no stake in how the world organises itself. He is definitively outside the system of the world's power, and the language of power. He is going to die, because that is what the world has decided. It is at this moment and this moment only that he speaks plainly about who he is." A little later in the same book, Williams says, "If we are prepared to listen for a moment to the extraordinary idea that this is indeed the very self of God standing before the court, it is we who are silenced, we who have our careful and exact expectations [about power, and about what real power is] overturned."

What can these two stories teach us? What is that Peter's mother-in-law, and Jesus' refusal to be called the Christ until his very weakest point have in common? I believe that it is here that we discover the very heart of Christianity. It is here that we meet a God who is not interested in power and domination...but instead we meet a God whose entire being is consumed by the notion of powerlessness, and service. Through these stories, and through so much of the Gospels, Jesus shows us that the way to happiness, the way to being blessed, the way to heaven is through serving and loving one another.

The meek shall indeed inherit the earth - because it is the meek who have discovered that there is freedom to be found through the loving service of others.

And if we think about this for a moment, we know its true. Each of us knows the sheer pleasure that comes from serving someone else. One of the things that astounds me about our parish is the sheer amount of serving others that goes on. Servers at the altar. Singers, serving us with their voices in the choir. Chris, our new organist, serving us with his fingers. Pat and Brenda, serving us each week by collating the Pew News. Brenda serving us by always ensuring we have clean linen. Flower arrangers serving us by providing beautiful displays. Cafe staff, serving their community. DCC and PCC members serving us through sitting on committees. Jim Booth and Philip Brombley serving us through gardening and repairing our churches. John Cozens keeping our computers, our heaters and our organ motor running. Parish Wardens, church wardens, treasurers. Christine Watkins serving our administrative needs by working many more hours than she is paid. Individual congregation members serving one another through times of sickness and need. The list is endless...and impressive.

And it's all godly. It's all rooted in a fundamental understanding that it is through service that we find freedom. It is all based on the principle that Jesus himself established...that human notions of power are worthless and transient. Wealth, power, riches and the world understands them...are all fleeting and temporary. Instead, we build up treasure that will last...treasure that transforms lives. Treasures of service that will last for eternity.


Let me finish with a story...sent to me this week by one of our parishioners: A holy man was having a conversation with God one day and said, ' God , I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.'

God led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, which smelled delicious and made the holy man's mouth water. The people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles, that were strapped to their arms and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful. But because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.

The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, 'You have seen Hell.'

They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man's mouth water. The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, 'I don't understand.' It is simple,' said God. 'It requires but one skill. You see they have learned to feed each other.'

Amen indeed!