Tag Archives: God

A Heart of Stone?

Heart of Stone

Evensong Message for Pentecost 2018 – Reading Ezekiel 36:22-28 and Acts 2:22-38

Today we celebrate Pentecost – an outpouring of the Holy Spirit – sent just as Jesus had promised – enabling and transforming those who were willing to receive it, with physical signs of flames and wind and a universal understanding of the truth being spoken to those listening and watching this in amazement. Just as Ezekiel had prophesied here was a gathering of the nations to hear the Word that would then spread out like wildfire from Jesus’ own land to ignite the flame that would become a global phenomenon – the birth of Christianity, with its message of faith, hope and love.

Here was something new then – or was it?

Surely people had had faith before? Jesus himself was a Jew, part of a well organised and structured faith; and whilst there were not necessarily a large number of organised religions as we would think of them today, there were many faith traditions. The Roman and Greek pantheon for example, Norse and Celtic traditions, many of which were Polytheistic, and often had an emphasis on communal public worship, and sacrifice (either of animals or humans) as an offering to the Gods; going right back to simple sun worship and pantheism.

 Hope is perhaps a little bit more difficult to measure prior to Christianity. What is it people were hoping for? For many it did centre on there being more to life than our brief span of three score years and ten – four score at a push. For the Greeks, a favoured few, were considered to have been physically immortalized and brought to live forever in places like Elysium. For others it was the ability to be reincarnated and to have the chance to live again, back on earth, albeit in a different way; but for most people, at the moment of death there was, however, no hope of anything but continued existence as a disembodied soul, endlessly swirling around in a cosmic soup.

And of course there was love, whether it was a strong feeling of affection and concern arising from kinship or close friendship or accompanied by sexual attraction. We all know that the Greek and Roman gods indulged in love with a relish, both among themselves and mere mortals, but rarely was it considered a love that was for all peoples, a love that begged relationship and which was sought reconciliation as its ultimate goal.

Christianity though was and is different. Faith was not just something you did, it is how you live; hope was not limited, it is tangible and everlasting and love was not exclusive, it is mutual and unconditional. This wasn’t some distant deity dandling human beings like puppets, this is a God who lives right alongside us.

In order to love one has to engage with our minds and our hearts. The two organs in a human body that not only sustain life but which enable us to understand what life is all about. But it is our hearts that pump blood around our bodies to every other organ which enable us to think, to feel, to touch, to sense and which have become universal symbols of love; and a heart that does not love can be said to be as lifeless and useless as a heart of stone.

A heart of stone does not allow our ears to hear the cries of those in need or our eyes to see injustice being done. A heart of stone does not allow us to feel emotions of compassion or joy, it does not permit our arms and hands to reach out to hug or be hugged or comforted.

 A heart of stone does not allow us the desire to know God and to become followers of Christ, because a heart of stone cannot love either itself or others. Even so, God is able to reach out to the most hard-hearted individuals and to use them for his glory.

 ‘A new heart I will give you,
and a new spirit I will put within you;
and I will remove from your body
the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’.

However, having a heart of flesh is not an easy thing to live with. A heart of flesh can feel the keenest of suffering, the deepest of sorrows and the innermost pain. There are times when it is almost unbearable to experience these things, but our hearts do not give up

The fact is that the heart it is the hardest working muscle in the body – the first organ to form during development of the body, and the last to shut down in death. But that’s just physiology. The difference is the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit in the form of love that enables us to ‘bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.’

 When Peter stood up on the day of Pentecost, it was the Spirit that enabled him to declare so boldly that despite what the people had done to Jesus, there was no power on earth that could have held him down and he used the scriptures to back up this declaration.

Quoting from Psalm 16, the Michtam of David, or the Golden Psalm, he spelt our very clearly the faith, the hope and the love Jesus knew was his in God,

“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

 It was the witness of the disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit that persuaded others that indeed, Jesus was both Lord and Messiah. As it says, ‘they were cut to the heart’. To the very centre of their being.

 When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish, whether it is showing compassion, sharing joy, or seeking peace. When our hearts beat to the same rhythm as God’s then nothing will be the same and everything will be transformed by love

Love of the Holy Spirit

 

Love One Another…

Love One Another Blog

The end of the Easter season is fast approaching and we will pack away our Alleluia responses for another year (liturgically and in theory). So before we do so here is a reminder that that our praise of God comes not just in liturgical form but in practical acts of loving one another as well.

Based on the following readings: John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Who’s still excited that it’s still Easter? Perhaps our Alleluia’s that we waited so long to hear after Lent as little more subdued, not quite so resounding? Well, we’ve come to the Sixth Sunday of Easter and we should be excited because the Easter season is building to its climax. Over these past weeks we have been celebrating the joy of the resurrections and the presence of the risen Christ appearing to his first disciples and being among us still. And yet on Thursday it will be Ascension Day when we remember Jesus’ departure from his disciples and his return to be with his heavenly Father for all eternity. We are therefore, liturgically at least, reaching a turning point.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Jesus had been preparing his apprehensive disciples for the shock when he is taken away from them; wanting to give them reassurance of his continuing love and presence with them afterwards, and giving them instructions for how the church (with a small c) should live. Of course, as disciples today, we can never get back behind Easter, because we hear Jesus’ reassurances in the light of our Easter experience, knowing that he rose from the dead to be with them and with us. So his warnings of his imminent departure and the coming of the Holy Spirit as a guide, resonate in our experience as we look toward Ascension Day and Pentecost, soon to come.

So, here today we hear Jesus continuing to give his disciples ‘commandments’, underlying all of which is the commandment given by God to Moses, the imperative that people should show by their lives what their God is like, which Jesus has fulfilled utterly. The example that Jesus gives, of his own willingness to die for his friends, is not a comforting one. Is that, then, to be the measure of love?

Well the gospel suggests that sometimes it is, and we know that nearly all of Jesus’ original disciples were called to do that in one way or another and those who followed after them were often martyred for their faith. However, the verses that follow this commandment suggest that there are other interim measures too.

One such measure is the role that we play, ‘I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. This sharing between Father and Son is extended to us. We are not simply issued with instructions that we must follow without needing to understand them. Instead we are invited to God’s table, to eat and discuss and share his great plan for the world.

Therefore, it naturally follows that one mark of our ‘love’ for one another and God will be our willingness to extend this invitation to others. Not to be an introverted, cozy warm church where we are all having a wonderful time, but ‘Come and join us at God’s table, come and help us to work out with God what to do next’. I wonder if you can remember when you received that invitation? Not simply an invitation to come to church, but the sense that God was calling you, through Jesus, come and find out more; a sense that you had been chosen to be part of the whole Christian way of life and love. As Jesus tells his disciples that they didn’t chose him, but he chose them. In the same way it is not we who chose God, but God who, in his grace, approached us with a call and an offer made out of his love.

This is certainly the experience of Peter and his companions as they watch Cornelius and his household respond to the love of God. They hear these strangers praising God long before they have gone through all the rules and regulations of what you’ll need to do be a proper Christian! Even so everyone needs guidance and God has this in hand when he gives us our different gifts and talents, both academic and practical.

The thing about guidance though it that it should be more about learning than teaching.  We learn better when we engage with our whole bodies – as I spoke about a few weeks ago, we need to love with all our mind, our body and our soul… I know that I have learned more about loving one another from people who have demonstrated this unconditional love of Christ, people who show love and compassion to loved ones with dementia, never getting annoyed or frustrated. People who give their time to serve others without any thought of reward or recompense. People who do things cheerfully and willingly, who never moan that it’s always them left to do something, when others have walked away oblivious to the fact that they might have shared a task.

It is deeply challenging and amplifying to see the word of God at work in the lives of others, and to see that before me and my feeble attempts at love got anywhere near a situation, that God’s love was already at work. I’m standing here talking to you this morning about love, but who remembers anything I or anyone else has said, if all you hear is someone ‘telling’ you? In fact, research shows that within just one hour, if nothing is done with new information, most people will have forgotten about 50% of what they learned. After 24 hours, this will be 70%, and if a week passes without that information being used, up to 90% of it could be lost.

Maybe then, I need to get us to do something a bit more practical to try to help us learn, and I’ve put this in the middle of my talk to see who’s still listening up to this point! Something that will help us think about being called to love one another whoever that might be. So when it comes to exchange the peace this morning, rather than simply shake someone’s hand, then look past them for the next hand to shake – as you take that person’s hand, briefly look them in the eye, offer them the words of peace, but let this thought go through your mind each time you do…. ‘This is someone I am called to love – how might I do that?’ Remember no need for fuss, just simply use that thought each time, ‘This is someone I am called to love – how might I do that?’

That’s something then to help us to share love between like-minded people, but we are also chosen in love and for love, and are sent out into the world to love one another. So that’s a thought we should have in our head every time we meet other people as well. Because, sometimes we live as if we were sent into the world to compete with one another, or to dispute with one another, or even to quarrel with one another. Many tell people to love each other when their whole lives are a demonstration that that is the last thing they do themselves. That is not the way of love.

However, we can become confused about being ‘commanded’ to love – perhaps our natural instinct is to say, ‘well actually I don’t think I can love in the same way that you did Jesus’. When Jesus talks about commanding, this is not a peremptory legalistic order, neither is it quite an instructional encouragement, it’s more a necessary requirement. The fact is that you cannot legislate for love, but God, through Jesus, can command us to love and discovering the difference between the two is one of the great arts of being human. The ‘command’ to love is given by one who has himself done everything that love can do. When mothers and fathers love their child, they create a context in which the child is free to love them in return. When a ruler really does love his or her subjects, and when this becomes clear by generous and warm-hearted actions, he or she creates a context in which the subjects can and will love them in return.

So when Jesus issues the command that we are to love one another, we do so because he has acted out and will act out the greatest thing that love can do. He has made us more human, not less because we do this in freedom and joy. So that we can bear fruit that will last, whether in terms of a single life changed because we loved somebody as Jesus loved us, or in terms of a single decision that we had to take, … or a single task we had to perform… through which, though we couldn’t see it at the time, the world became a different place.

So let’s enjoy these last few days of the Easter season. Alleluia, Christ is risen!…. he is risen indeed, alleluia!

He Has Risen

 

 

Day Nine – A Lost and Changing Identity: The Story Of A Most Extraordinary Survivor

Jakub Weksler Waxzinel at Yad Vashem

Jakub Weksler Waszkinel at Yad Vashem

As the problem of anti-Semitism rears its ugly head once more in British politics, I was moved to visit again the story of an amazing man whom I had the privilege of hearing tell his story at Yad Vashem. Jakub Weksler Waszkinel works there in the archives, but as a baby survived the Holocaust in Poland. This is his story, mainly in his own words.

‘I was born in Poland in 1943. I don’t know the exact date, but it was accepted that I celebrated it on the 25th March. However, my teacher seemed to think it should be the 28th February and asked me to speak to my mother and father. My father said that nobody knows – but how could that be? The fact was I didn’t look anything like my parents, which always made me feel uneasy. I had dark curly hair whereas my parent were Slavic in appearance and I would ask my father “why am I different?” His explanation was that a stork had dropped me down the chimney, they had cleaned me up but my hair remained black. Perplexed, I asked “why the chimney?” His reply was that it was winter and the doors and windows were closed.

I don’t remember anything specific about the war, but we lived near the station at Vilna (Hebrew for Vilnius, Lithuania) and the transports left from there for Poland. What I do remember is feeling very scared, full of fear, at the sound of planes – my mother said I was an anxious child and stuttered as a boy. At age five I encountered my first anti-Semitic event; I was returning home when two drunk men passed me and uttered the words ‘Jewish bastard’. They kept looking back and smiling, making fun of it. It panicked me, and when I got home I told my mother and asked her, ‘What is a Jew?’. She asked me who had called me that and I replied the neighbours. I repeated my question, but she just hugged and cried and said, “Remember, good smart people don’t talk that way and drunk people don’t even love their own children”. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident, but mother always helped me calm down.

During bible classes I found out all about the Jews, presented as mostly horrible people because they had killed Christ. The bibles had paintings of stereotypical Jews and I began to be afraid of them. Even so I understood deep down that they had not murdered Jesus Christ. After all Jesus was a Jew and I thought this is your Jew – why mine – because he really loves me. Such a difference between school and home, where there was no mention of Jews.

Yet something still bothered me deep inside. My mother and father loved me very much, it was not just words but a sincere love. This love was demonstrated after I went to a party and heard an accordion being played. I was very excited and went home asking if I could have one, thinking it was a toy. However, we didn’t have any money, we were very poor. I whispered my wish and rubbed my father’s hands, calloused from hard work. Unbelievably they sold their cow to buy an accordion for me.

It was a strong, close relationship and I loved going to church and praying with them. At home I played make belief of being a priest and took a collection in matchsticks, before offering a blessing, ‘God bless you’. But my outward appearance still troubled me, I so desperately wanted to look like my father; and I believed that I did up until the age of ten, as they had shaved my head to prevent lice, but now I had hair again. I still pestered my mother for an explanation, and although in everything else she always told me the truth, I was met by silence and tears.

In exasperation I looked in the mirror and declared, “If I am a Jew see what I will do!” However, despite this assertion I didn’t want to be a Jew who had killed Jesus. Furthermore there were no Jews living around us, so I didn’t know what it was meant to be like – I just wanted to be an ordinary Polish child.

I didn’t encounter any problems at Middle school, I learnt the accordion and even bought a new one; I read poetry and forgot about being a priest. If I was asked what I wanted when I grew up I would answer that I wanted to get married and have children. Then in my last Religious Knowledge lesson the teacher priest asked us again and I heard the words coming out of my mouth, “I am going to be a priest”. This rather alarmed me as I despite going to church I felt I was a non-believer. Still, in the evening I told my parents that I was going to become a priest. My father’s reaction was puzzling. As a very religious man (I had seen him every night on his knees, praying) I thought that this would please him. Instead he asked me what I was going to do about all the young ladies and playing the accordion. He thought it was better that I become a doctor, but I reminded him that I didn’t like blood. Then what about an artist, he suggested, which was confusing as he had previously said the artistic life was bad. Basically do anything else rather than go to the seminary. My response was that, “I can go wherever I want. I can’t make promises to the wind.” So I went to the seminary to start my studies.

In October of that year I received a message that my father wanted to see me. I asked could it wait until the Christmas holidays, but no, he wanted to see me immediately. When he came I could tell he was very sad. After lunch we went to the chapel and he fell on his knees and started crying. I had never seen him like this before. When we came out I asked him why? Surely I wasn’t doing anything bad. A few days later I received a telephone call to say that my father had died.

This was a complete shock, and I felt responsible. At the funeral my mother reassured me that I hadn’t killed him, but that I could choose not to go back to the seminary. I did return and spoke to the Rector, “What shall I do?” He said I was in shock and to come back after a month, when I decided to remain there, “I won’t stop and I will be a good priest”.

It takes six years to become a Catholic Priest with a lot of studying the Bible. I had never had a bible at home and in it I saw the beautiful world of Judaism; the prophets were poetic and the New Testament confirmed that the Jews didn’t murder Jesus, symbiotic of my suffering, suffering of victim not perpetrator. When it came to make my vows as a deacon I needed to present my qualifications to become a priest and there were some doubts as to whether I had been baptised. The Jewish fear came back and I recalled the childhood name-calling. Maybe my parents may have known but they didn’t tell me, it was just rumour and gossip. So I had a conditional baptism and my Godmother, who is still alive wrote me a letter and came in 1966 when I was priested

Still the ugliness continued. My first year in the parish was good until someone reminded me of who I really was. The local train driver asked whether I knew what they were saying about me? Are you a Jew?

Then I went away to study at university – John Paul II was my ethics tutor. Nobody talked about the Holocaust in Poland, and parts of the country were still very anti-Semitic. On All Saints Day in 1968 I went to a cemetery where there was a Tomb of Fallen Soldiers. Nobody really went there as it was gloomy and dark. As I light a candle and was praying, I looked up to sky and noticed the dates 1941-1945 on the soldier’s helmet. I went back to the university to find out the history of those dates; the history of Poland during the war. It was the first time that I heard about the extermination of the Jews. It led me to think, was my mother raped? Maybe my mother isn’t my mother?

In 1975 she came to live with me, but she didn’t want to talk about the war, just said it was a bad time, but I needed to know and I gave my mother a book about the Jews. She started to cry and I asked her quite forcibly, “Am I a Jew?” Her response was, “Do I not love you?” I knew she loved me very much but I realised there was something there. It took three uneasy years before she felt able to tell me the truth.

Jakub Weksler Waxzinel Two Mothers

Jakub’s two mothers – his birth mother, Batia, is on the right and his Polish mother, Emilia, on the left

I know the date and time of my second birth, the 23rd February 1978 at 7pm after dinner. She decided the time had come, that I must know. “You had beautiful parents who loved you very much, but they were Jews. I saved you from death. What their names were I don’t know”.

“What does that mean, that I am a Jew?” I asked. We cried a lot.

“You are important,” she said eventually, “Not your name. You had a very smart mother. I went into the Ghetto and spoke with her, but said I couldn’t take you because as a boy you had been circumcised, . Your birth mother’s response was that she knew I was a believer in Jesus, and he was a Jew, and if I saved her Jewish son, when he grows up he will be a priest!”… By then I had been 12 years a priest. She went on that in 1941 over a period of 3-4 days the Russians had murdered almost the entire Jewish population. The only ones that were left were those who were useful and my father had been a cobbler, a good shoemaker, a profession helpful to the Germans, which is why they were still there in 1943.

What was I to do with this information? I wrote to the Pope, John Paul II, the same man who had taught me at university, and asked for prayer. He responded, ‘Dear brother’, such wonderful words. The next fourteen years were very difficult as I began to find out more about my Jewish heritage. Then in 1992 a local nun came to visit Israel and when she looked at my native town immediately identified the names of my parents and was even able to find a photograph of them. I discovered my father’s name and that I had a brother, Samuel, and I apparently have my mother’s eyes.

Jakub Weksler Waxzinel

The Jewish Catholic Priest

In July of that year I myself came to Israel. I had been in contact with my father’s brother and his family (who were very religious) and had written to them enclosing a picture of me in my collar. However, when I came down the steps of the plane there was no one in sight. Then I spotted my ‘grandfather’ with his cane. He recognised me because he said I walked like my father. Their first words were, “So you’re a priest, eh!” and wanted me to explain about the persecution of the Jews over the last 2000 years. My response was that I was not 2000 years old! How many times have I been baptised? It doesn’t matter. I asked to go with my uncle to the synagogue, after all Jesus went to the synagogue.

After my visit I wrote again to the Pope, I didn’t want any secrets, but I wanted to keep all my names on my identity cards, which wasn’t normal, but I received a letter with all my names and managed to change everything. l am a Polish citizen, but my nationality is Jewish [In Israel the Jewish status of a person is considered a matter of nationality]. I also asked that my Polish ‘parents’ be honoured as Righteous Among the Nations’ as they didn’t give back a Jewish child, “I wasn’t a suitcase to be handed back”. On the 1st December 1995 a plaque was unveiled with their names, and it turned out that the reason his mother was in the Ghetto was that they were thinking of adopting and had heard about a baby and wanted to save him.

Jakub Weksler Waxzinel's Polish Parents in Righteous Among Nations

Piotr and Emilia Waszkinel – Honoured as Righteous Gentiles

In 2009 I came to live here in Israel on a kibbutz in the Jordan valley. It was a religious kibbutz and at the beginning everyone was afraid that I was a missionary, but we grew to love each other and they didn’t want me to leave a  year later when I decided to come to Jerusalem. I lived for a time in a Catholic house but now in a Jewish senior’s home and work here at Yad Vashem.

In 2012 I found my mother’s family and I am now a happy Jew. All I want now is to be a Jew, like Jesus – who wasn’t a priest or a Christian.

Shalom!’

Perhaps it’s good to remember that one’s identity is not always found in our outward expression of faith, but internally, in the heart and mind and soul which God knows better than anyone and loves us all just the same.

Our Lord Jesus Christ said:
The first commandment is this:
‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your mind,
and with all your strength.’
The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Summary of the Law from Common Worship

Jakub’s, or Yaakov as he prefers to be called, life was documented by Ronit Kertsner in the 2011 file ‘Torn’. He discovered his real parents were Yaakov and Batia Weksler and that he had been born in Swieciany, a shtetl near Vilna. He also learned that Batia had been an ardent Zionist and that she and her husband had an older son, Samuel. On April 4, 1943, Yaakov, Batia and three-year-old Samuel were put on a transport to Vilna. From there, Batia and Samuel were sent to Sobibor, and Yaakov to Stutthof. They all perished in the camps.

 

Risky Business

Risky Business

Sermon based on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Matthew 25.14-30

How much of a risk are you willing to take on behalf of your faith? Have you ever considered that it’s necessary to take risks? Surely God doesn’t expect us to take risks! Or does he?

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I wonder, what’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? I could throw in a few example to make you think, ooh yes that’s a risky thing to have done; you might say I took a real risk when I did that; or maybe you don’t take risks because you always weigh up the chances of failure and success and stick with the greater odds of success.

After all taking risks is a risky business – it can involve an exposure to danger, the possibility of something unpleasant or unwelcome happening; the probability of financial loss or the chance of incurring unfortunate consequences by engaging in that particular action. The fact is behaviour psychologists have proved that as human beings we are generally adverse to anything that involves a risk – people will prefer not to take a risk even at the cost of letting valuable opportunities pass by.

In today’s gospel we have the example of three slaves or servants and their attitudes to risk. The first two felt able to take a risk, but then it wasn’t their money they were taking a risk with but the third one started to analyse what the risks were and decided to do nothing, not even the soft option of putting it into no-risk low interest bank account. He calculated the possibility, the probability and chance and decided they were too great for him, and it seemed he made the wrong choice.

Our lives are full of opportunities to take risks, especially where our faith is concerned. I cannot speak for all of you whether you have taken risks on your journeys of faith. Maybe you’re like I was just beginning to dare to put your foot through the door because you want to find out what it is that’s calling you to be here. Or maybe you’ve accepted the invitation and want to know what God might be asking you to do next.

For me one of the risks was stepping into the unknown, with no church background or experience, a painful sense of not wanting to step into an arena in which I could be scrutinised and found to be wanting and yet a deep desire to put myself forward despite all of this. You may have heard me say before, but it was reading John Ortberg’s book, ‘If You Want To Walk On Water You Have To Get Out Of The Boat’, which was the catalyst that made me take a risk to get where I am today; and I would suggest that every Christian’s life is marked by windows of opportunity that demand a radical step of faith in order to follow Christ and fulfil his agenda for their lives.

What makes that step radical is that it always involves significant risk.  We know there are times where God will offer an opportunity and it may be in our relationships; in our career; in regard to our finances, when he says, ‘In order to obey me, in order to follow me, in order to do exactly what I want you to do, this is what you need to do in this situation’. And everything within us is fearful, ‘Really God, you want me to do that?’

The reason it’s radical is because you say to yourself, ‘If this doesn’t work out, this relationship could fall apart.  If I do that, I could be changing my family dynamics, it may ruin my career possibilities in the future, or what if I can’t pay my bills?’ When we are facing a challenge and the possibility of failing, our mind rationalises our fears by coming up with hundreds of logical reasons not to do it. But, where there is no risk, there is no faith. Just like the third servant had no faith in the master.

Without faith there is no power and where there is no faith, there is no joy, no reward, no pleasing of God.  In fact, where there is no faith, what you do get is hollow religious activity, moralistic rules, and dead orthodoxy.  We all know of churches where despite the God talk and the many programmes and course that are run, over time it becomes religious activity and the focus is on, ‘Do this but don’t do that’ Lots of rules and the wrong sort of power. Where though is the presence of God?

We know that when we have great faith we are able to do great things. We only have to think about all the people throughout the history of the bible such Moses, Esther, David, Peter or Paul, God brought windows of opportunity and each one of them took a radical step of faith.  And that radical step of faith meant that if God didn’t show up then Peter was going to fall through the waves or Paul, when he returned after persecuting the Church, was going to die.

Every person’s life that is greatly used by God, that experiences God in powerful ways, takes great risks. When we have great faith we are able to do great things. We can think great thoughts; we can pray great prayers and dream great dreams. We’re not just talking about calculated risks, because let’s face it we all like opportunities that come with the word ‘guarantee’ attached to them. That way we feel safe and satisfied with our decisions. I can think back to the time when I told people I was going to go skydiving and people were worried about the risks, but it was a calculated risk, the equipment was checked, the experts had done it thousands of times before, the step I took to allow myself the liberating and exciting feeling of flying into the vast chasm of the sky had been carefully weighed.

Sky Diving View

Not a bad view from up here!

However, one thing that risk takers have in common is fear; fear of what might happen.  Those emotions that you feel and think, risk takers all have as well, they fear what might happen.  I can tell you, at least my own personal experience, the greatest steps of faith I’ve ever taken I was scared to death, and it’s okay to be afraid.  It’s not okay to allow your fear to paralyze you from taking the step of faith. But you have to have faith to step out in spite of your fear.

God tells us time and time again, ‘Do not fear, do not be afraid, I am with you’, and he equips us as we heard today; ‘put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us’.

The other day I came back from our study group quite buzzing. There had been a sense of excitement, a desire to engage with new ideas, of wanting to do something. We’ve been studying John Pritchard’s book, ‘Ten Reasons why Christianity makes Sense’ and we’ve talked about reasons why we should believe in God, the problems people have with faith, how to enliven our faith and the values we need for the church of today and tomorrow.  Above all the need to be communities where a holy fire and passion burns fiercely at its centre because this is what attracts people. We have to take risks, but as we’ve said risk looks very different in different people’s lives.  Often when we think of risk or faith, we always think it’s stepping out. Yes, sometimes we need to leave things behind and sometimes we need to remain and get stuck in to confront and change things, it’s still stepping out – of the security of our comfort zones.

Change is always a risk –  the risk of alienating people, driving them away, the risk of failure, not being able to deliver on the vision.  But not doing anything is like planting that talent into the ground. As Pritchard says, ‘Change is the way of institutions […], and we have to know when to let time-expired practices go. .. the human institutional life of this community has to be kept under constant review if it’s to be a travelling company of spiritual seekers rather than a secret society of defensive administrators.’

The good thing is sometimes even if you take a risk and fail, you end up winning anyway, because you learn valuable lessons in the process and stretch your abilities. There is a certain satisfaction in knowing that you dared and went for your dream against all odds, whether you succeeded or not. Regret of never trying is usually much harder to live with than failure.

Paul reminds us that we belong to the day – to things of light – We shouldn’t be afraid of sharing our faith, of talking about Jesus. After all ‘he was a man who inspired countless millions to change their lives and the lives of nations. His values were flawless; authority secure yet humble; judgement spot on. His teaching radical and enthralling; decisive, amusing, demanding and encouraging, filled with humanity yet left people aware they had spent time with God. Why wouldn’t we want to point people to this astonishing figure?’

And we need to continue to make links between Sunday and Monday. I could honestly say that 99.9% of the people who are part of this church, regularly make that link. But we’re going to need a robust, whole-life discipleship if we are to stand up to the secularizing pressures of the day. A Christian living his or her faith in an informed, open, clear-eyed way with wisdom and integrity is a hugely attractive witness to the King …  So let’s all take those risks and ‘encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing’

Amen

Peter takes a Risk

If you want to walk on water you have to get out of the boat – Peter takes a risk

A Seed That Falls Into The Ground

 

Meditation on A Seed that Falls into the Ground

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

Walking The Emmaus Road

The Road to Emmaus by Daniel Bonnell

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

A bas relief on a church at Emmaus showing Jesus with a male and female companion

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
Luke 24:30-31

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.

Amen

 

 

 

From Alpha to Omega

 

Easter Sunday Evensong brought to a close an amazing day of celebrations and the end of the journey we had been on throughout Holy Week. From the highs of Palm Sunday, with it’s joyous branch waving, through the sharing of a Seder meal and watch on Maundy Thursday via the reflective solemnity of Good Friday to the bursting alleluias of Easter Sunday. Now in this more formal choral service there was room for one more talk,  and it took us to the very end of the story. Based on Revelation 1:12-18 here were my thoughts.

This morning we were at the very beginning of the amazing story of the resurrection of Christ and this evening we are taken to the end times through the apocalyptic writing of John, a ‘servant’ of Jesus.

Jewish apocalypses were generally written at times of crisis and we know that the early Christian church regularly faced persecution from the Roman authorities and that many Christians had already been martyred, and that the writer John had himself been imprisoned and exiled on the Greek island of Patmos, because he had been spreading the word about Jesus.

The first Christians lived in eager anticipation of Christ’s return, but some 60 years after his death it had still not occurred. They needed something to inspire them to stand firm; to remind them that God is in control, no matter how things may look and these revelations are trying to encourage the reader, both then and now, to look at the ‘big picture’ of human history.

It is as though a veil is being drawn aside and future events and scenes of heaven are ‘revealed’. Through Christ, God is bringing history to its climax and close, and the need to focus on the end of the world when God will reign supreme in justice and peace.  Christ speaks to his Church through John, to encourage and guide his people. He urges them to persevere through times of darkness and great stress, for after this life they will live with God in a glorious new world.

John describes his visions in the extraordinary picture language first used in the Book of Daniel. He has a vision of Jesus ‘like a Son of Man’. This had been Daniel’s vision – a human being who fully represents the human race, appearing in clouds and great glory, to be given God’s power and authority to reign over all things.  However, John’s vision has far more detail than that of Daniel’s. I tried to find an image that I could give you to look at whilst we though about this passage, but I couldn’t find an artistic interpretation that did justice to this extraordinary vision, you are going to have formulate your own picture in your head.

We can imagine his long robe is dazzling white and the golden sash reflects and bounces that light back to us. This Son of Man has the same pure white hair as Daniel’s God, the Ancient of Days, the bright white of pristine snow that glints in sunlight, almost too painful to look at.

We cannot tell what colour his eyes are because they are eyes that blaze with the fire of holiness, and his feet  glow with the strength of burnished bronze. His voice has the fluid melodious sound of rushing water and his mouth speaks truth with power and precision. His face is brilliant like the sun in a cloudless summer sky,

This glorious Christ stands among seven golden lampstands. These are his churches, which give his light to the world. He also holds in his hand seven stars – the angels that care for each local church. I wonder if we ever imagine our own church with its own guardian angel?

In the world, the churches are like lampstands, and Jesus gave the same picture to his disciples. They are not to hide the truth, like putting a light under a bowl. The are to lift it high, where it can give light to everyone. This then is our calling as a church and as individuals, to life the name of Jesus up so all may enter in the warmth and brightness of his presence. A presence that is fearsome but not frightening, as John found out when he fell at his feet as though dead. For Jesus is the first and the last, the alpha and omega. This morning and every morning our exclamation should be ‘Alleluiah, Christ is risen! Because as Jesus reveals to John ‘I am the living one, I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades’.

John is in exile, perhaps sentenced to hard labour; his body may be in prison but his spirit is free. Christ’s revelation of himself to his disciples, to the world and to us, means that we too are free and that our future is secure.

Alleluia, Christ is risen
He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Amen.