It’s funny when certain things start to press into your consciousness and suddenly you see and hear it all around you. Over the last few weeks there has bubbled up so many events that have displayed hatred and prejudice among different groups of people and all of this fed into my wanting to say something. This week’s gospel of Jesus and his meeting with the Canaanite woman seemed to offer an opportunity to do so.
May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
I was once asked by a bishop to think of a story where Jesus had had his mind changed… by a woman. At first my senses bristled slightly as the nuance that it might have been a more unusual moment because a woman had done so… but actually what I think he was trying to explore was my attitude to feminist theology.
Feminist theology, in case you’re wondering (and according to Wikipedia), includes goals of ‘increasing the role of women among the clergy and religious authorities; reinterpreting male-dominated imagery and language about God, determining women’s place in relation to career and motherhood, and studying images of women in the religion’s sacred texts and matriarchal religion.’
Feminists and women’s rights campaigners were very much part of the social history that surrounded me in my formative years – people like Germaine Greer, the Greenham common women protesters, being encourage to ‘burn your bra’ to make a stand for women’s rights. This was of course another stage on from the Suffragette movement and ranged from extreme hatred of anything masculine to fighting for equal opportunities in the workplace.
Alongside this were the big news stories of racial segregation, race riots in America, the assassination of Martin Luther King and apartheid in South Africa. Images and words that soak into your consciousness – to be absorbed and considered often subconsciously, but tempered with the opinion of your family and friends.
Nearer to home, and yet still not directly affecting my everyday life were the tensions in Northern Ireland, the segregation along faith lines – of roman catholic and protestant, the IRA bombing campaigns and the tragedies of Enniskillen and the killing of Airey Neave. Although no doubt my views were coloured to some extent by fear and shamefully a sense of annoyance, when early on in our marriage my husband David was not able to openly wear his naval uniform outside of ship or barracks and had to have the subframe of his car checked with mirrors on sticks – just in case
Hate and prejudice between men and women… black and white… Christian and Christian… and they were just the big prejudice issues.
And this last week or so, that ugly prejudice has reared its head again in Charlottesville, USA. Where groups of people believed they were justified in chanting racial slogans and inciting violence against those who disagree with their points of view and lifestyle, a humourless parody of neo-nazism and white supremacy – a belief in one group of people being ‘the chosen ones’.
The shame is that these are often views that have been formulated and passed on using specific scriptures and texts to validate their attitudes – a real reminder to us that we should not cherry-pick individual verses and hold them up in isolation – better to see the bigger picture from Alpha to Omega
It’s true though that in the bible we can find it difficult to get away from the motif of certain people being ‘the chosen ones’. In the Old Testament how often do we hear of the Israelites being God’s own people, chosen and special, to the disadvantage of all other peoples. This week alone in readings from the lectionary, Ezekiel spelt out God’s wish that ‘no foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the people of Israel, shall enter my sanctuary’ and Jesus himself in Matthew’s gospel, talking about reproving another who sins, used the phrase, ‘if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.’
Even the verses that we don’t hear today in our New Testament reading, Paul talks to the Romans about the salvation of the gentiles only coming through the stumbling of God’s ‘own people’ and that although they have been ‘grafted in to the original branches and root’ they are not ‘to vaunt’ themselves over the branches’.
Subtle prejudice creeps in however hard we try and distance ourselves from it. I would count myself as very liberal-minded, open-hearted and very much against prejudice in all of its forms; willing to defend those views without compromising my faith, and yet I know that there are times when I can catch myself thinking of things I was taught and heard as a child, things that I spurn when I realise that it’s not appropriate or even Christian. The trouble is as a white, middle-class woman the only prejudice I have really suffered has been positive prejudice.
I can never feel what it must be like as a young black male driver being six times more likely to be pulled over by the police than my white contemporary; or a young male Muslim suffering discrimination because of the radicalisation of a small minority of my faith; or a young female Asian, subject to an arranged marriage, virtually imprisoned and sold as a chattel in twenty-first century Britain who doesn’t have a voice.
I could say ‘What do these things matter to me? They are not part of my life; these are not my experiences of prejudice’ – and yet it doesn’t stop me from empathising and feeling in my heart the injustice and wanting to speak out – to challenge those who hold these prejudicial viewpoints.
So what has that got to do with the gospel we heard this morning? Well, if you hadn’t already guessed this was the passage that the bishop wanted me to call to mind. A passage in which both the disciples and Jesus himself appear to display prejudice against both women and people of other races and faiths; and were challenged.
What of the Canaanite woman? The same story is told in Mark’s gospel, where she is called an Syrophoenician, and he very clearly identifies her as a Greek and a Gentile – a non-Jew. The place where she lived near Tyre and Sidon had traditionally been at the edge of the land of Canaan. However, now this area was a prosperous Roman city port, but its people had already heard about the things that Jesus was doing and now he was coming to them. So when she comes running after him, she had already made up her mind that he was going to be the one who could help her.
A Gentile… a woman… begging insistently for him to help her, only for Jesus to turn around and tell her that he had only been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – the Jews. You could almost imagine his friends nodding and exchanging superior glances. Then he adds possibly a rhetorical question, ‘Would it be fair to take food from the mouths of God’s chosen children and give it to anybody gathered around the table?’ Those with him were no doubt thinking, ‘No of course not – come on let’s move on and not waste any more time here’. She was dismissed!
Yet, she wasn’t going to be brushed aside and it must have taken a lot of courage speak out and challenge Jesus, and perhaps this was what he was waiting to hear. ‘Everyone who gathers around the Master’s table will be grateful, even if, like dogs, they only get the crumbs.’
No doubt there was a sharp intake of breath from Jesus’ followers, but Jesus would have looked at her and seen just much faith she really had because she believed in him. Was the Syrophoenician woman a Christian? Did it matter what she looked like? Did it matter where she came from?
When we believe in Jesus, when we believe in God, when we believe in the Holy Spirit, we confirm our faith……and it’s when we truly believe, that we begin to understand the importance of being ready to challenge prejudice and to be challenged.
Paul will go on to confirm to the Galatians that ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. and last week, he confirmed that ‘the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ We can therefore be very clear that at the heart of the gospel message, salvation and acceptance is open to all. Let me just emphasis that – to ALL. There is no room for hatred or prejudice of any kind
How great then is our faith?
Sermon preached on Sunday 20th August 2017
An Advocate, a comforter, a helper, an assistant… the gift of the Holy Spirit means that we never have to rely solely on our own strength; and some days you need it more than others. After an exhausting few days, I explore this thought in my talk yesterday morning (6th Sunday of Easter John 14:15-21)
May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
The gospel passage we heard and read this morning is often subtitled the promise of the Holy Spirit. In this instance not as a rushing wind or tongues of flame that we will hear about in a couple of weeks, or the gentle dovelike descent that was seen at Jesus’ baptism; but a breath that we inhale and which resides deep within us.
Jesus is about to ascend from his earthly life and resurrection back to the Father. His disciples will doubtless be feeling even further bereft bearing in mind the great task that he is setting them up for. We could reason, and I’ve heard people say it, if only Jesus were here today he’d explain what we need to do – yet look at the time he did spend with his disciples and followers and how they themselves so often showed a complete lack of comprehension or understanding. But if we look closer at what he is saying he is not abandoning them or us; instead he is to send an advocate.
The word Advocate here is a translation of the Greek word parakletos or Paraclete which is often also translated as comforter or helper. For the disciples, and for us as well, the idea of a comforter is very apt. In the sense of bereavement or tragedy, which the disciples were facing, having someone with you and alongside you, giving you the odd hug or silent hand holding, gives strength to face the next moment – the death or tragedy is still a tragedy but having support and comfort enables you to cope with that moment.
Here though we have the word Advocate; a legalistic word as an advocate stands up in a court of law and explains to the judge or jury how things are from their clients perspective and pleads their case. In the same way the Holy Spirit does this for us, but in ways that are more than just acting as an assistant, helper or comforter; more like bridging the gap between us and God.
As we get to know who Jesus is, so we find ourselves drawn into his life and love and sense of purpose – we are then able to see what needs doing and what resources we might need to do it – and to help us do this Jesus promises his own Spirit, his own breath, his own inner life – the Spirit of Truth.
You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
I must admit that I wrote this sermon yesterday when I was very tired. I’d been out on Friday evening with Southampton Street Pastors and hadn’t gone home until just before five o’clock on Saturday morning. By a quarter to ten I was out with the Love Harefield crew, including several others here, picking up litter around Harefield. By noon I was visiting my mum in Abbey House, Netley, where she is undergoing rehabilitation since having a fall in February when she broke her hip. By two o’clock I’d had a sandwich for lunch but knew that I still had this talk to write before I went out in the evening to hear my daughter, Lizzie, sing with the Singsational Voices choir at All Saints, Botley.
Now I don’t say all of that seeking sympathy or to be told that I’m over-stretching myself, because each of these things I felt were equally important to do. No doubt we’ve all had times when we’ve faced similar periods, when we feel that we’re running at full speed with our petrol gauges hovering over empty. Yet for all the physical tiredness there is joy to be discovered when we realise that we do not have to rely on our own strength or capabilities to engage in each task.
I can tell you at nine thirty on the Friday evening I could quite easily have remained sitting on the sofa and not got up and changed into my Street Pastor uniform and driven into Southampton. Yet the moment I did I began to feel energised as to what situations we might be called to during the patrol.
I could have stood back and simply poured out cups of hot chocolate to our homeless friends on the street, but then I wouldn’t have felt moved to bob down beside Mark, who told me his dyslexia was preventing him from filling out the necessary form in order for the council to provide accommodation for him, and having signposted him to a group that could help him with this, have him grasp my hand and bless me.
I could have hesitated to go over to assist a taxi driver who was dealing with a very drunk young man who had resolutely sat himself in his cab, despite having no money, and gently persuade him to dismount, very precariously I might add, so that we could sit him down on a wall and offer a bottle of water, sitting next to him and listening as he poured out his story of why he was in such a state, as he gradually sobered up enough to be able to start his long walk home instead
I could have ignored the high-heels-abandoned bare-footed girls, knowing that I’d already cleared up two areas of broken glass further down the road, instead of calling out whether they’d like some flip-flops and then explaining in response to their incredulity as to why we would be doing this in our own time and all for free
I could have stayed under the duvet instead of donning a hi-vis jacket and operating a pick-up stick, doing a menial task that would help bring the satisfaction of a job well done to improve our neighbourhood, and which was much appreciated by the people I spoke to as I walked around, and I would have missed the fun of working together and the doughnuts!
I could have been quite irritable with my mum, who nowadays asks me the same thing several times and whose memory means that a lot of the times we’ve shared in the past are often forgotten or denied. Rather than sitting and doing a crossword together and her telling me that she’ll know the answer as soon as I say it.
I could have missed the joy yesterday evening of being filled with the Spirit as I listened to nearly a hundred voices sing in harmony and rhythms that touched my innermost soul.
These are all things that I don’t always want to or feel comfortable doing in my own strength, but I am aware that it is the gift of the Holy Spirit that enables me to achieve so much more, to live for God and to witness to his love in the world, and it’s a gift that is offered to everyone.
Yet not everyone can receive it because they choose not to see or hear the message. There is a large part of the world that lives as if there were no God and a person who has eliminated God from their thoughts never listens for him. When we open ourselves up to receiving the Spirit we wait in expectation and prayer and in doing so will be joined to Jesus and God the Father by an unbreakable bond of love. We will recognise that Jesus never leaves us to struggle alone. As William Barclay puts it, ‘The Holy Spirit gate-crashes no-one’s heart – he waits to be received’
Jesus asks us to keep his commandments – a commandment that boils to down to just one thing – love one another as Jesus loves us. Jesus expressed his love in many different ways, the gospels show us his immense compassion for the suffering, his attentive listening presence, and his energetic celebration of the lives around him. He healed the sick, he fed the hungry, he released those held captive, he sought justice and invites us to do the same; all with the assistance of the Spirit that he sent in his place.
The Spirit that abides with us and in us. So maybe next time that we feel unsure, ill-prepared or uncertain of what we need to do or how we’re going to cope we can remember that invisible bridge bringing us closer into a relationship with Jesus and the Father so that they are revealed more clearly to us and in turn reveal God more clearly to others through us.
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24
Every seed created must yield,
in order to produce new life.
It breaks itself, releasing embryonic seedlings,
that bare these scars on tender tips.
Indeed the seed that falls on the good soil,
already at an advantage, is nurtured
and fed with loving care and attention,
producing glorious blooms to dazzle the eye
and be heavy with fruitfulness.
When God created these conditions
He saw that it was good.
But He also created those seeds
whose produce is not beautiful or wanted.
Maligned in name, the weeds, regardless,
release seeds that are fruitful and multiply.
Who blossom despite the poverty of the soil
bringing colour to a monochrome world;
and God sees that this also is good
For God provides for all,
requiring neither their labour nor toil.
Lilies and thistles alike;
unperturbed, they flourish
over wildernesses, pushing through fissures,
clothing battlefields and demolition sites in
velvet rich purples and glowing golden yellows.
Glorious treasure shining
to announce the presence of their creator
God, watches the downy seeds
carried aloft, drifting on breezes,
to settle in a new place
and proliferate a new harvest,
that declares the signs of the Kingdom,
with open-ended grace.
The secrets of life and death
are known to God,
who provides the refreshing rain
and balmy sunshine;
the winds that scatter
and insects that dance a pollination polka;
and the seed that falls to the ground
knows it must die to live.
The beautiful and the down to earth,
both speak of the wisdom and handiwork of God.
Inspired and adapted from Jan Sutch Pickard’s The Cheerful Unrepentant Weeds, published in Dandelions and Thistles: Biblical Meditations from the Iona Community by Wild Goose Publications
So often we can have a refrain or single phrase of a song running through our heads. When this happens we can often find that an idea comes of how we might represent those words. On a recent silent retreat at Mucknell Abbey, Worcestershire, the words ‘How awesome is the sight’ from the song ‘Be Still For the Presence of the Lord’ kept going round and round in my head. This piece of artwork is a result of that insistent prompt.
What is it that we create from those ideas in our heads, the symbolism we try to portray in the smallest of details and which we hope will be obvious to those who view the picture? I think that is the beauty of art, that we can all take from it what appeals to the eye and what thoughts it leaves us with within our own minds. Whatever that might be for you I hope at the very least it brings you joy
Who is like you, O Lord…majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendour, doing wonders?
What I will say is that I don’t believe that the scan I made really does full justice to the vibrancy of the colours of the original, a first attempt to incorporate coloured pens (Stabilo pen 68) with watercolour pencils and ink
The month of May is with us and we continue to see signs of new growth and life all around. Not those first buds of spring, but the lush greenness of trees coming into full leaf, ferns unfurling themselves and the first swarm of midges over the pond in the early evening. Having celebrated Easter recently, the gift of new life is very much in our minds as we rejoice in the resurrection of Christ.
This new life we see around us never comes from nothing: the trees are producing new growth from existing branches; the bluebells filling the woods are from bulbs deep in the soil and even the bedding plants waiting to be nurtured for summer colour are from the seed of a plant that bloomed last year. As Jesus said ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’
This is true however brief that life is, and one of the briefest of lives is that of the mayfly, a primitive insect that the German engraver Albrecht Dürer included in his 1495 engraving sometimes known as ‘The Holy Family with the Mayfly’, suggesting a link between heaven and earth. However, Dürer may have intended it as a butterfly, a creature whose dramatically transformative life-cycle makes it a perfect symbol of resurrection and redemption. Whatever its identity, with inoperative mouthparts and digestive systems filled with air, this ephemeral creature, the mayfly, is destined to live only a few hours. It lives and dies purely in order to produce new life; a female typically laying between four hundred and three thousand eggs.
Jesus’ life similarly could be considered all too brief, yet he tells us that he came that we ‘may have life, and have it abundantly’. We also recognise that the seasons change and all too soon spring will give way to summer with its abundant fruitfulness, before winter will see those fruits awaiting transformation. Through Jesus we are assured that for us this transformation will mean a new and everlasting life. His promise is not necessarily in longevity, but life in all its fullness – so let’s make the most of each and every day, finding in it God’s blessings and sharing them with those around us.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
The story of the Road to Emmaus lends itself beautifully for us to think about our own journeys of faith; the processes we go through of discovering who Jesus is, wanting to know more about him and when we have that moment of revelation, confessing him as our Lord and Saviour. Here is my sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter 2017, based on Luke 24:13-35
May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
The story of the Road to Emmaus, one of the most vivid and insightful accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. So often there are stories in the gospels that make you really want to be a fly on the wall, or in this case a fly on the road.
We also need to understand that the journey to Emmaus is both a literal and a spiritual journey. On the one hand it recounts the journey of two of Jesus’ disciples who, after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, walk seven miles from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. On the other hand it mirrors the journey that we all take from not knowing or recognising Jesus, to understanding what the bibles say about him, to recognising him for who he is and that he is the reason we are willing declare our faith and can call ourselves Christians.
It’s a journey that we are all on; all of us at different stages, independent of length of time or knowledge and understanding, but like today’s gospel story there are waypoints, crossroads, defining moments. A journey we’ll see that those disciples found didn’t end in the house in Emmaus but began a new voyage of life changing discovery.
Over the last few weeks it has been wonderful to journey with some of our young people and adults as we have explored what it means to be a Christian, the joy of the Gospel and prepared some of them for one of their own defining moments when they will confirm and recognise their faith at the upcoming Deanery Confirmation service. Each of them will have their own story to tell, their own unique journey they’ve travelled to get to that point, their own experience of a relationship with Christ. So what does the story tell us about both their and our own journeys?
Firstly it’s interesting to wonder who those two disciples might have been. Well we are told the name of one of them, Cleopas – a disciple whose name or variant of it some scholars claim has appeared before in other gospels. In John he is mentioned only by association with his wife Mary, one of the women standing at the cross with Jesus’ mother, Mary wife of Clopas. Secondly, it’s generally assumed, rightly or wrongly that the second unnamed disciple is a man. Perhaps it might make sense that Cleopas and Mary, husband and wife, both close disciples of Jesus, were making their way back home together
Of course nobody knows for sure, but it does lend itself to the inclusivity of Jesus’ message to all regardless of gender, race or sexuality. What we do know is that it is Jesus that seeks us in the first instance. On the road, Jesus himself ‘came near to them’ and although the disciples knew who Jesus was, they did not recognise him. They knew a lot about him, they had heard a lot about him and yet they were unable to recognise him when they met him. This could be said to be true for many people, even nowadays; they’ve heard of Jesus and even some of the things that he did, and yet they don’t recognise him or respond to him. They don’t engage in wanting to find out more, despite his presence.
We could also ask why the two disciples were prevented from recognising Jesus. Perhaps God had a purpose in blinding their eyes from reality. It’s not cruelty on God’s part, but by a gradual revelation of himself, Jesus allows them and us to learn that we can trust God’s promises. Remember that the disciples as a whole had been told about these events many times beforehand, but still they had not believed
Maybe it was because events had not happened as expected. Their preconceptions of who Jesus was and what he had come to do had been turned on its head; perhaps they dismissed the whole thing as misplaced hope and trust. When things turn out different to how we expect how often do we give up and admit defeat instead of trying to understand whether there is a reason for it.
It could be that they had too little faith – why didn’t they believe the reports of the women, even when they’d seen the empty tomb for themselves. Or the whole idea of a supernatural event of God raising Jesus from the dead was a concept they couldn’t grasp; had they even considered who Jesus was?
Is this a mistake that’s repeated today? Just because someone knows about Jesus, doesn’t mean they know him. They may have heard about him, read about him, use his name and many claim to know him. But knowing about him and knowing him are two different things
Along our journey there will be others who help us to know more about Jesus, but ultimately it will be Jesus that opens our eyes. For the two disciples on the road he used the things that they would already know about, the scriptures, and how if they believed what the scriptures said about him then they would understand why he came and why he had to suffer. We too today have scripture to help reveal who Jesus is, and we have the double advantage of not only having the Old Testament but the New as well.
When we read and come to know the scriptures better they help to build up our faith, they are a reliable witness to who Jesus really is, and the truth that they contain lead us to a personal faith in Jesus. A personal faith and a personal relationship with Jesus, but it mustn’t stop there. If we personalise Jesus too much he fast becomes God in our own image. The relationship we are called to have is one of fellowship and community. It is not coincidence that it is around a supper table that the disciple’s eyes are opened.
Think how many of the resurrection appearances are associated with table fellowship: the request for something to eat when he appears to all the disciples almost immediately after the two from Emmaus had told their story, or having breakfast on the beach. It was during the intimacy of a shared meal when Jesus broke bread and gave thanks, that the disciples recognised him
When he was at the table with them,
he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him
We too through our sharing of communion also come to recognise Christ in the memorial of the bread and wine shared at the supper, which goes on to prompt us to share with others our recognition of his presence. I can vividly remember my own first communion, a real sense of being filled with the Holy Spirit, as the bread was placed in my hands and the wine sipped from the cup. That was my moment of my ‘heart burning within me’ as I acknowledged who Jesus really was and the transformation he was bringing to my life. Like the disciples in Emmaus when we are moved with similar emotions then surely there is only one thing we can do and that is to testify in our lives, actions and words why we are followers of Christ and invite others to join us on that journey.
It would be lovely to see lots of us there at the Confirmation service, not only to support those who are declaring their recognition of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, perhaps publicly for the first time, but to remember that we too are either travelling on a journey toward that decision or recalling the time when we too made that declaration.
We are called to walk together in fellowship and the great thing is that we also have a Saviour who walks alongside us. So we can never walk alone, however hard or tough the journey. Sometimes we may try to run on ahead, at other times we trail behind, but somehow eventually we learn to walk at God’s speed, and God continues to give glimpses of himself across our lives; enough to sustain us and keep our faith strong on the journey.