Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Ones Jesus Didn't Heal

John 5.1-9  - The Ones Jesus Didn’t Heal
Today’s Gospel reading finds Jesus at the Sheep Gate of Jerusalem, at a famous pool – the pool of Beth-Zatha.  This pool had a reputation throughout the land as a place of miracles.  It was said that from time to time, an angel would stir up the still waters of the pool, and that the first sick person to get into the water after that would be miraculously healed.  The Bible doesn’t tell us whether or not this was true – only that this is what people believed. 
It's no surprise, therefore, that the area around the pool was packed with sick people, each hoping for their chance to get into the water.  They were all over the place – and Jesus went for a visit on the Sabbath.
Try to imagine the scene.  Jesus stops at the entrance to the pool.  He looks around at the sea of blind, lame and paralysed people.  And his eye comes to rest on a man who has been there for 38 years.  38 years of hoping he would somehow manage to be the first in the water.  But for 38 years, he had had no-one to help him get into the pool.
What follows is a remarkable story of Jesus’ compassion for this man.  He frees him from his sickness.  He frees him perhaps from his superstition too…he frees him from putting all his hopes into a strange story of angels stirring up the water.  Jesus enables this man to start his life over again.  And Jesus does all this on a Sabbath – provoking the wrath of the law-makers of Israel. 
Each of these facts would be interesting enough reasons for a sermon.  But they are not what intrigues me most about this story.  For me, the question is this…why this man, and why not the others?  The text describes an area packed solid with the sick, the lame and the dying.  Presumably Jesus would have had to step over some of the other sick people to get to the one man whom he was about to heal.  Why only one man?  Why not heal everyone there? 
This is a question which of course plagues everyone who believes that God has the ability to heal.  We have all heard tales of miraculous healing.  We all know that cave wall over the healing pool at Lourdes is hung with the crutches of those who have been healed.  I wouldn’t be surprised if most of us have a friend or a family member whose recovery from some illness or other has seemed miraculous. 
And yet, many more of us live with sickness – our own or that of someone we love.  Sickness and frailty are a part of the human condition that God seems to purposefully not heal – despite our fervent prayers.  It seems as though God steps over our sickness, or that of a family member, to get to someone else.  Why?  How does this make sense?
Well, to grope towards an answer, I invite you to use your imagination again.  Imagine an airplane, on which the engines have failed in mid-flight.  Aargh!  The passengers and crew cry out for God to help them, for they are about to crash.  Hearing their prayer, God’s giant hand reaches down from the clouds, picks up the plane, and deposits it safely on the earth. 
I wonder what the effect of such an event would be.  I think this is what would happen…human beings would simply stop bothering to invent and create well-designed airplanes.  What’s the point of implementing rigorous safety protocols, if God is going to rescue any plane in trouble?  In fact, why bother with airplanes at all?  Let’s just throw ourselves off the nearest cliff, in the direction we want to travel…because God will catch us and deposit us where we want to go!
The same analogy applies in every area of human suffering.  If God intervened every time we human beings do something stupid, or thoughtless, or selfish – how would we grow?  How would we develop as a species?  How would we learn right from wrong?  Sickness – and the other challenges of life - provide a crucible for human beings to do wonderful things.  It gives a task to the greatest minds to seek out the cures for diseases.  It gives an opportunity for the rest of us to give sacrificially to medical charities, or through our taxes to Government-funded research.  From the act of caring for someone else with an illness, we learn compassion and care.  From our own illness, whenever we suffer it, we learn humility from realising that we are not, in fact, invincible.  We learn, instead, that we need others to help us function.  We need the care of medical workers – including Junior Doctors!   We need the care of our family and our friends.  We learn that it is in relationship with each other that we are at our best…that we reach our fullest potential.
This was true for the man at Beth-Zatha.  His problem was not a lack of faith.  For 38 years he had believed in his cure.  His problem was that he had no-one who could carry him down into the water.  He was alone.  It was only when Jesus came along, and created a relationship with the man, that he was able to find the healing he needed.

This story then is a model for all humanity.  God can and does heal our sicknesses…there is simply too much evidence to deny the reality of miraculous healing, and it is why we pray for it for our ourselves and our loved ones.  But, until the new Jerusalem of this morning’s reading from Revelation is established, God permits sickness to be a part of the world in which we must live.  He wants us to learn from it, to grow through it.  He wants us to learn the value of charity to others, and the humility of receiving charity from others.  He wants us to embrace the concept of living in community – for, to quote Shakespeare on his 400th anniversary – “no man is an island”.  Just as God finds Godself in the relationship and community of being three in one, Father Son and Spirit – he yearns for us too to discover the beauty and the growth of living in community with one another, and with him.  

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Setting out for the Future Together

Setting out for the Future Together
A Statement from the Rector
to the Annual Parochial Church Meeting 2016

The trouble with thanking people, as every leader knows, is that there is always someone who gets forgotten.  There is almost bound to be someone sitting here today who is quietly seething because I have obviously not noticed their personal act of self-sacrifice…the way they came in that day and quietly made tea for visitors in the church, or the day they put that extra donation in my hand for the Big Build Campaign, or the day they organised some work to be done on the church’s behalf. 

The one thing that has consistently impressed me about St Faith’s is the sheer number of you who do volunteer your time in one way or another.  It seems that almost every one of you is involved in some way – for the good of the whole parish.  Cleaners, flower arrangers, bell ringers, choir members, servers, pastoral visitors, welcomers, sidespeople, musicians.  Then there’s the vast array of committees that we run – there’s the Communications Team, and the Pallant Buildings Development Team.  There’s the Finance Committee and the Capital Campaign Group.  There’s a Buildings Management Committee, and a weekly Site Team meeting.  There’s a Churchyard Development Group, and the Church Electronics Team.  And many more besides.

And this is of course precisely the way it should be.  As we are often reminded, before sharing the Peace, that ‘We are the body of Christ’.  That’s an incredibly profound thought.  Just ponder it for a moment.  With the wave of holy hand, God could surely do everything that needs doing without our help.  We believe in an ‘Almighty’ God, for whom nothing is impossible.  And yet, he invites us to be his serving hands in this community.  He invites us – you and me – to co-operate with him in his mission to redeem Havant and the whole world.  What a privilege we have been given…to be God’s loving hands to a dying world!

I thank God every day for the service you all give.  I thank God that Father Peter, Father David and even Father Brown of blessed memory have faithfully preached this most fundamental message of the Christian faith.  We are a body.  Without each other, without each other’s service to one another, we would achieve precisely nothing.  We stand, or fall, as the people of God in this place entirely on how much we are willing to give up our own desires, and serve the common good.

As we set out for the future together, I find myself joyfully optimistic about what we can and will achieve together, by the grace of God.    Our Mission Development Plan has given us a firm foundation on which to build…a direction in which to travel.  There are many challenges ahead…and there will be many sacrifices to be made along the way. 

It is, of course, the very idea of Sacrifice that stands at the heart of the Christian Faith.  With Good Friday only a few weeks behind us, we have once again reflected on the sacrifice of our Lord – and on how his pouring out of himself led to so much creative energy, that he ultimately burst out of his own tomb.  Just this week, I was at Bosmere School, taking an Assembly and chatting to the children.  A couple of them came up to me and asked “Why is Good Friday called ‘good’”?  The standard answer, of course, is that it was good that Jesus died for the world.  But the deeper meaning is that personal sacrifice, of any description, is ultimately the greatest good that any of us can do.  Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is an icon, a grand metaphor, a prime example, of what can be achieved through sacrifice.

So, as we set out for the future together, don’t be surprised if, from time to time, I ask even greater sacrifice of you.  I’ll ask you to sacrifice the time you normally give to your TV, to come and be part of this community – in worship as well as in fun and fellowship.  I’ll ask you to sacrifice the money you normally save up for that cruise or exotic holiday – so that we can achieve the costly work of maintaining these buildings as signs of the Kingdom.  I’ll ask you to sacrifice the comfort of your sofa, for the distinct pleasure of a plastic chair in the church hall, or a paint-brush, or the sometimes frustrating work of a Committee.  And I will do so unashamedly, and without reserve…because of Christ.

We call Christ our Lord.  And by his own sacrificial death, Christ calls us into sacrifice and service.  He does this for the good of the Kingdom, and also for our own good.  He calls us to sacrifice, because sacrifice is good for us.  It takes us out of ourselves and our own tiny self-obsessions.  It expands our consciousness, and enlarges our heart.  It strengthens our character, and shapes us to be more like Christ.  I preached last year on the way that Orthodox Christians believe that our destiny in Christ is to become ‘deified’ – to become, ‘gods’ with a small ‘g’ – people who are so like God the Father that people see God’s own face in ours.  All of that becomes possible when we offer ourselves, body, mind, heart and soul, to be ‘living sacrifices’ for God.

So, thank you all.  Thank you for the sacrifices you have already made.  And thank you for the sacrifices that you will yet make.  We are the body of Christ, setting out for the future together, to build our designated corner of the Kingdom of God here in Havant.  Looking to the Ultimate Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus as our model, let continuing sacrifice be our watchword, our inspiration, and our path to salvation. 


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Never say 'Never': Doubting Thomas

John 20. 19-31

Back in 1983, Hollywood was stunned when Sean Connery decided to reprise his role as James Bond. By that time he was decidedly middle aged - and had not played Bond since 1971. Movie-legend has it that after he finished filming for 'Diamonds are Forever' he said to his wife "never again". But she was horrified, and replied "no - never say 'never again'!"

The title of the 1983 movie was a bit of a joke at Connery's own expense.  It was a way of him recognising that he had been a bit rash in his original statement.

And that's something I think we've probably all done at one time or another, isn't it?  I know I have.

As a young evangelical, I know that I said I would never ever be seen dressed up in clerical robes….look at me now.

I grew up on a diet of good old fashioned English food…and I remember a time when I was being taken out to dinner by friends to an Indian restaurant.  “I could never eat that stuff”, I said.  “I’ll only go with you if they also serve egg and chips”.  But when we were there…someone persuaded me to have just a little taste….and I was hooked!

When Peter and the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, his response was pretty unambiguous, wasn't it?  "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe".  In other words -"never - I'll never believe what you tell me...unless I see it with my own eyes". (John 20: 25)

Just imagine the embarrassment that Thomas felt when Jesus appeared to him in that upper room!  He must have felt like an absolute idiot!  "Why did I say I would never believe?!  What a fool I was?!  Why didn't I believe my friends?!"

You see, the thing about Jesus is that he has a way of over-turning all our expectations.  His whole life-story is one of apparent contradictions to the way that others expected he should act.  He was born in a stable, not a palace.  He ate and drank with sinners, not the religious leaders.  He taught about love and forgiveness - even towards the Roman occupiers.  He rode into town on a baby donkey, not a gleaming white war horse.  He allowed himself to be murdered by the state, instead of calling down legions of angels to protect him.  He stubbornly refused to stay dead...and rose up from the grave.

Jesus overturns our expectations - just as he overturned Thomas' expectations.  Thomas expected that he could cling to the notion of empirical evidence - that he could depend only on his eyes and his own sense of touch in order to establish what was true.  And that is the fundamental mistake that is made by so many people today...people like the now infamous Richard Dawkins, and other prominent secular atheists.

God is separate from all that God has made. Above it.  Beyond it.  Outside of it.  We should not be surprised that God cannot be found in a test tube or at the end of a microscope or telescope.  God doesn't want to be found in a test tube.  Instead, God wants us to connect with him through our souls, through our spirits - through the essential essence of what it means to be God's own creation.  God wants us, like Thomas, to discover God with the eyes of faith, and the hands of trust. 

Why should that be?  Why should Jesus say to Thomas that it is those who believe without seeing who are blessed?  Wouldn't it be easier for God to make himself touchable, scientifically prove-able?

Well, perhaps it would...initially.  But the problem is that in order to be the dynamic, ever-changing world that we experience, the world needs to be constantly on the move.  To quote that wonderful old hymn; "Change and decay in all around I see...Thou changest not, O Lord, Abide with Me."

If God could somehow be scientifically reduced down to a substance that could be seen in a test tube - it would not be God.  God is as far above such reductionism as the sun is above the earth.  God is far more than anything which can been seen or touched. 

So what does this mean for us - in our daily lives, and in our life as a church?

For our life as a church it means that we must 'never say never again'!  Rowan Williams has famously said that all our language about God must be must always be open to being shaped and changed by the God who is outside of all human methods of proof.  That means never saying that we could never do things differently.  It means never saying that we could never change our view about what God is like.  It means accepting that the way we worship, the way we pray, the way we use our time and our money in the service of God must always remain open to the reality of God. 

In our daily lives, it means growing in our attentiveness to God in all aspects of our life.  God is not tied down by our decisions, or even by our circumstances.  God has the capacity to break-through even the hardest of situations that life has thrown at us.  He can heal, because he is beyond all human capacity to heal.  He can comfort, because he is beyond human systems of support.  He can challenge, because he is greater than all human challenges.  He can change our minds about priorities, life-style choices, jobs and political allegiances - because he is beyond all such limitations.

God can neither be touched, nor seen...and yet God is present with us in every circumstance of life.  God cannot be boxed or sold - and yet he is the ultimate manufacturer.  God cannot be seen, and yet he is the light.  He cannot be touched, and yet he is the ultimate ground of all being.

At the end of the day, we can, and should, do no more and no less than our brother Thomas the Twin - fall on our knees as cry out, "My Lord and My God". Amen.