Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Ash Wednesday

 Readings: Joel 2: 1- 2, 12-17 & John 8: 1 – 11.

Do you remember the dustmen's strike of the late 1970s? I do – because of one very memorable event, which happened soon after we had moved into a new house. My Dad decided to deal with the overflowing rubbish bin via a bonfire in the garden. However, he accidentally consigned an aerosol can to the flames. Sure enough, the can exploded – sending a missile over the fence at the bottom of our garden, to land in the open kitchen door of a new neighbour.

Our neighbour, who turned out to be the headmaster of our local school, came screaming out of the house. "What on earth to you think you are doing?!" My Dad was, of course, very apologetic – but thought that this rather bossy man was over-reacting a bit. It was only an accident after all. He was then rather puzzled by the neighbour's next question: "What would have happened if a net had been there?". "Well," replied my puzzled father, "I suppose a net would have caught it!". What Dad didn't realise, was that 'Annette' was the headmaster's daughter!

Ashes were part of all our lives, not so long ago.  I guess most of us have had the experience of raking ashes out of the grate, in the days before central heating.  Ashes are just rubbish, aren't they? The product of burning something away. Just carbon. Waste, after the heat and light are gone.

So why, tonight, are we going to put this rubbish, this ash, on our heads? I want to suggest three reasons why we maintain this tradition - though I am sure there are more.

First of all these ashes are a reminder of who we are. The Bible tells us that we came from the dust and to the dust we shall return. Are bodies are about 50% water, and 22% carbon – which is what ash also is.  The beautiful mythological imagery of Genesis tells us that the first human was formed out of the dust of the earth by God and then God breathed life into that dust. That is a powerful image. God is the source of our life – and the ashes we will use later on remind us of our utter dependence on him. Without the breath or Spirit of God moving in us, we are just ashes – dust: lifeless - worthless.

Secondly ashes are also a sign of repentance. As well as being a time of preparation for Good Friday and Easter, Lent is a time of mourning for our sins. It is a time when we are called to repent, turn away from our sin – which why, throughout Lent, we do not sing the Gloria, but focus instead on the Kyrie. "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy".  Traditional Christians also say that we have to give up using the word ‘Alleluia’ in Lent too – so that it has all the more power and meaning on Easter Sunday.  For many of Lent will involve giving up something which we enjoy, as a personal discipline, and as a sign of our repentance.

Repentance is of course a key biblical theme. Time and time again the Old Testament prophets called people to turn away from their way of doing things, and to turn towards God's way. Sometimes, as Isaiah said, that even meant repenting about the way that repenting was done! In Isaiah's day, fasting had become sort of fashionable, and as a result, hollow.  Isaiah, speaking for God, says "Is this the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes. Do you call this a fast - a day acceptable to God?"

Isaiah goes on to outline what true fasting, true repentance will look like. True repentance means becoming like the God whose heart is for the poor, and the hungry, and the homeless, and the weak, and the stranger. It means being practical, outward looking, loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. It means expressing God’s love for other people, through our actions, through our prayers, through our giving.  It means, as Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, going from here and sinning no more.

Thirdly, and finally…people in the Bible put the ashes on top of their heads - so why do we put them in the sign of the cross on our foreheads?  We make the sign of the cross because it is a reminder of how we are marked for Christ.  It is in one sense a reminder of our baptism, when we were signed with the sign of the cross.  

And the cross of ashes also reminds of the mark of the Lamb as it is described in the Book of Revelation.  Revelation tells of an angel marking the faithful before the tribulation. These faithful would then be protected – kept safe from the terrible Day of the Lord that the prophet Joel warned us about – “the day is close at hand.  A day of darkness and gloom.  A day of clouds and blackness.”  A day when the forces of evil that stalk our world will gain the power to ruin lives, full the pockets of the rich, bring war and famine and pestilence.  A day, I think you’ll find, that is not unlike the awful things happening in our world right now! 

These ashes tonight remind us that whatever comes, we are belong to Christ; he has marked us with the ever-lasting sign of Love, the mark of the cross.  We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.  We need have no fear.

These may be just a few ashes, but they mean a lot. Let me just summarise:

First, they are a symbol of our need for God, for His breath of life. We are nothing but dust and ashes apart from Him.

Secondly, they are also a symbol of our repentance and mourning. We've allowed ourselves to be seduced by the wealth and comfort of the world, while our neighbours are starving. The ashes are a sign of our deliberate repentance, our turning away - from our way of being, to God's.

Finally, in the midst of our repentance, these ashes are a sign that however often we have failed to live God’s way, and whatever evil befalls the world, we are marked as Christ's own, and we belong to him.  We are stamped and certified as children of God through the cross of ash.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Was Jesus a racist?

Text: Mark 7.24–30

From there he (that is, Jesus) set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’  But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’  Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’  So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.


I like a good insult. I confess it. Take, for example, the anecdotal tale about Sir Winston Churchill. Once, at a party, he is said to have been approached by one Elizabeth Braddock, who exclaimed "Mr Churchill, you are drunk!" Churchill is said to have replied, "Yes, Madam, and you are ugly. But in the morning, I will be sober." Priceless, isn't it?

We all know, though, don't we, that even playful insults can easily cross the line into hurt and offence.  Which is why it is quite surprising that in today's Gospel we should hear Jesus describing the non-Jewish races around him as 'dogs'. In the Middle East, calling someone a dog has always been a gross insult.  And yet, when a Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter, Jesus' response is 'it’s not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs'.  The clear implication of his words is that he considers his ministry to be first and foremost for Jewish people.

  The Jews are the children.  Other nations are ‘dogs’.  What a shock! What an insult! To the woman in question, it would have been like me saying that only white English people can be Christians. But when we read the Bible, we have to be very careful. Only a few pages earlier, especially in chapters 3 and 5, we find that Jesus quite happily and regularly preached his message to non-Jews, all around Tyre and Sidon, casting out demons into a herd of very non-Jewish pigs.

So - we've got ample scriptural evidence that Jesus was anything but a racist.  Then, we've also got scriptural and historical evidence that the people all around Jesus pretty much hated each other – Jews against Samaritans, Canaanites against Philistines.  And the Romans against everyone! So...with that evidence before us...what are we to make of Jesus statement about children and dogs?

Mark tells us that after some intense theological arguments with Jewish religious leaders, Jesus went off to the city of Tyre - some distance from Galilee.  And, according to Mark, he "did not want anyone to know it". Mark presents us with a Jesus in retreat...trying to get away from the pressures of his ministry for a while...I know how that feels.

Then along comes this woman - a Gentile - who asks Jesus for another miracle`. Weighed down by the difficulties of his mission, worn-out, it seems to me that Jesus actually appears to snap.  We can imagine him, frustrated that he is not getting through to his own people, saying to himself "I  need to get the Jews to understand my message, before we can take it any farther". He gropes for a metaphor. Tired, he turns to the woman and sighs "First let the children eat all they want...".

Notice the use of the word "first". Jesus' reply doesn't exclude the Gentiles...he simply states that as a Jew, from a nation of Jews, through whom God has chosen to bring salvation to the world - Jesus feels the need, strategically, to focus on the Jews first.  But was he right?  Does it mean that if he came to Britain, Jesus would have joined ‘Britain First’?

 The next line is even more troubling, potentially: "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs". It's a metaphor. Jesus is trying to soften his automatic response.  In fact, although we translate the word here as 'dogs', scholars tell us that Jesus used a word which referred to household pets. It was a diminutive form of the word for dogs. A playful word. More like a puppy than a fully grown Rottweiler!

But the woman is more than a match for the tired, worn-out Jesus.  And she's desperate to get Jesus to change his mind.  She persists - she spars with him. "Yes Lord", she replies...accepting for a moment the idea of the Gentiles as being his second priority. "Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs".

You can almost see Jesus laughing at this point. You can see him acknowledging that he was wrong to not give his help immediately...and smiling that the woman had so cleverly turned his own metaphor against him.  Mark tells us that then he told her "For such a reply, you may go: the demon has left your daughter".  Jesus praises the woman for her faith, and he rewards her persistence by healing her daughter.

So what do we learned from this story - and from this bit of bible-study we've been doing together?

First, we've seen something of Jesus' humanity. We sometimes forget that Jesus was human, as much as he was God. He felt cold, hunger and fatigue just like we do.   For those of us who are struggling with what feels like a never-ending cost of living crisis, we can be sure that Jesus feels our tiredness, and our frustration.

And, just like us, when he was tired and stressed, he was capable of getting things a little out of balance.  The same goes for us. It is not sinful in itself to hold a wrong opinion. But when strong science, or the Holy Spirit, reveal to us that an opinion we hold is simply wrong (a fake truth, perhaps!) we sin when we refuse to change our mind – to repent, to turn around, to face in the new direction of truth.

Secondly, I think this story reminds us to have some patience with each other when we sometimes get things wrong.  We know that Jesus could frequently get exhausted by his ministry.  He took frequent naps in boats just to keep going.  It’s good to recognise that we are all human… that we can all mis-speak from time to time.  We need to be always ready to forgive and move on in our relationships with one another. 

Thirdly, we need to recognise that it was the woman’s faith and persistence which ultimately gained her what she sought form Jesus.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that if I keep on pleading with Jesus to give me a Rolls Royce that my persistence will pay off.  Persistence and faith need to be aligned with God’s purposes for my life, and the life of my community.

And finally, we learn that we follow a Lord who know what it is like to be us – to be tired, fed-up, and in need of getting away from it all.  He stands with us, alongside us, sustaining us and encouraging us – knowing completely what we are going through.  He is with us today, just as he was with the Syro-Phoenician woman.  Amen.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Being Light in the Darkness

Text: John 1.1-14

According to Navy legend, once upon a time, in the early days of naval radar, a United States aircraft carrier called the USS Constitution was making its way into British waters. The Radar operator spotted a blip on his screen, directly in the path of the mighty carrier. So the Captain radioed ahead and said "Unknown Vessel, please change your course by 20 degrees to avoid a collision".

The radio crackled, and a reply came back. "Unable to comply. You change your course." The captain picked up the radio again. "Listen, this is a naval vessel - heading straight for your co-ordinates. Now change your course, or risk being sent to the bottom of the ocean".

The radio crackled again, and the reply came back, "We were here first. You change your course!" By now, the captain of the mighty war machine was incandescent with rage. "Listen, you little British pip-squeek. This is the USS Constitution - the largest air-craft carrier in the world. We won't even feel you when we run over you. Now move!"

The radio crackled for a third time. "This is the Eddystone Lighthouse. Your move."


Here, on the second Sunday before Lent, almost at the centre point of Winter, among the darkest days of the year, the Lectionary invites us once again to contemplate Light.  Just as it did last week at Candlemas.

But this time, by pointing us to St John’s Prologue, the Lectionary lays it on with a trowel.  Not content, as St Luke was last week, to merely describe Jesus as Light to the Gentiles, St John adds contrast to the picture.  He places Jesus, the wisdom and voice of God, the Word Incarnate, in direct contrast and opposition to THE DARKNESS. The Light (of Christ) shines in the darkness, he says, and the darkness did not overcome it.

These were words of hope and encouragement to the first people who received John’s Gospel.  They would have been a frightened, anxious community of early believers, hiding from Roman and Jewish authorities in private houses with the windows tightly shut, or digging out the catacombs under the streets of Rome.  They would have been whispering the hope of Jesus to one another, and recognising each other with furtive drawings of a fish in the sand of the market place. (That’s where the Christian fish-sign originated – a secret symbol between early Christians, scratched in the sand).  

The first Christians to have heard John’s Gospel, perhaps 60 or 70 years after the death of Jesus, would have known what it meant to live in darkness.  They would know what it meant to be a minority who longed for the light of God’s wisdom to shine into their society.

That was their context – and it echoes with ours, does it not?  The Christian Church of today also stands in opposition to the darkness – the darkness which gathers around us today.  In recent weeks, we’ve become aware that churches all over the world are facing real financial difficulties (and dwindling followers) accelerated by the cost of living crisis.  We’ve had to confront the uncomfortable fact that Christianity is presently dying in the West.  It’s wonderful to gather together, as we do, in what feels like a large number – but never forget we are a TINY minority of the roughly 10,000 people who live in this parish.

And this should not surprise us.  The church in the West stands in complete opposition to so much that the West holds dear.  We stand against greed, and the amassing of wealth by tiny elites.  We stand against hedonism and pleasure-seeking for its own sake.  We stand against the prevailing drug culture and intemperance of excess alcohol.  We stand against consumerism, and the exploitation of workers in slavery conditions, making cheap goods and clothes for us to hoard.

These are dark times indeed.  But they are no less dark than for the church of the first century which stood against the military dictatorship of Rome, and its hedonistic system of market-led consumerism, also under-pinned by slavery.  Sometimes, the darkness feels overwhelming for us too.  It feels too high a mountain to climb.  Too deep a darkness to overcome.

Yet “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.  The message of Jesus Christ is that however desperate things feel, however deep the darkness surrounds us, it will not overwhelm us.  The Light of Christ will continue to shine.

The question then for us, we tiny few, we remnant of humanity who cling to the Light, is not so much what we stand against – for we know how dark the darkness is.  The question is, as people of Light, what we stand FOR.

We stand, in the name of Jesus Christ, for a Kingdom of LOVE.  That love, focused first on God, and then on loving our neighbours, shines out from this building and every church community like a beacon from a lighthouse.  It probes and prods at the darkness, which will never overcome it.  It offers us a completely NEW way of living.

Starting from the day when each of us knows, truly knows, that our past trespasses are forgotten and forgiven by God, we, the people of the Light, learn how to stand up for love.

·       Love which shares its wealth; it does not hoard it.

·       Love which reaches out to those in need, and offers the hand of help.

·       Love which delights in communities coming together – whether in person or online.

·       Love which frees the slaves of Eastern sweat-shops, by refusing to collude with consumerism  and by offering aid and micro-loans instead.

·       Love which offers an alternative to drug addiction and drunkenness – life in all its fullness.

·       Love which brings healing to the sinner, and balm to the sick.

·       Love which picks up the phone and bears the anguish of its neighbour.

·       Love which even has the power to overcome death – though that is a topic for Easter

So, my dear friends, when you hear that the church is in financial and numerical crisis, do not be afraid.  We’ve been in crisis before, many times…and we will be once again.  The darkness always tries to overwhelm the light of the church….but darkness, and the very gates of hell, shall not prevail against it (Mt 16.18).

For the true church is the church of Christ the Light-bringer.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it!  Amen.