Archive for July, 2015

Faith in the wilderness

Posted: July 20, 2015 in Uncategorized

19 July 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Mark 6.30-34  Jeremiah 23.1-6

I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold

Our passage from Jeremiah seems to be about shepherds
Of course we know they’re not really shepherds
The bad shepherds are just a way of talking about the ruling classes
Jeremiah was prophesying at the time when Babylon was about to capture Jerusalem

But this is really a passage about exile
Of all the prophets, Jeremiah deals most immediately with the experience of exile
Jeremiah lived through the time when Babylon captured Jerusalem and destroyed it
Many of the people were marched off to Babylon as slaves
Jeremiah didn’t go to Babylon – he was taken away from Jerusalem, possibly against his will, by a group of refugees
He ended his life in an exile community in Egypt

The situation of exile is replayed in the gospel passage today, because the people have gone out into the wilderness to find Jesus
They have no shepherds – their religious leaders don’t want to meet Jesus
So they’re all back in town, sitting in their comfortable homes

The wilderness is a place of hardship, a place of potential danger:
– there’s the danger of losing one’s way, of robbers and brigands, of thirst and hunger, of wild animals

The people of Israel knew all about the wilderness
From Israel, you have to pass through the desert to travel to any other country

Metaphorically, the desert is a place where you travel from one state of being to another
You set out with what little you can carry – and usually end up throwing most of it away
The wilderness is a great place to get lose your baggage

The desert is also a place of possibility
The desert is a place of transition
It’s a place where you can be unmade, and re-made

The desert journeys of the people of Israel took them between the land of exile, and the land of promise
The Israelites crossed the wilderness into the Promised Land
Their descendants were driven back across the wilderness into exile

Eventually they were allowed to cross the desert again and return home
– But still as a subject people, under the rule of a foreign empire

So in the time of Jesus they were still waiting for God to lead them on a final journey
A journey of deliverance; a journey to final salvation

What we learn from this is that the wilderness journey is a two-way trip: it leads both ways
And in this way it symbolises something very important about God’s promises

God promises and threatens – but the promise and the threat are not two separate things
God’s threat of punishment always comes with the promise that a remnant will be saved, and from that remnant he will restore the nation

Through Jeremiah, God threatens the bad shepherds with judgement
But at the same time, he promises restoration for the people
He promises, I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold
The people who were unmade will be re-made
God will appoint new shepherds – in fact he will anoint a new king, a Righteous Branch
– And this we understand to be a prophecy of the coming of Christ

What does this mean for us?

We like adventures – at least, we like to hear about other people’s adventures
We like to watch TV programmes about people struggling over rocks or sand
Trekking over snow and ice
Eating raw fish, roots and berries, creepy-crawlies

We like to read books and watch films about people fighting for their lives
We may even play computer games where we play at doing these kinds of things
The reality is far less attractive – for obvious reasons
We’re far too sensible to risk our necks

We are not good at wilderness journeys – God’s people never have been
– grumbling against Moses just because they had no food or water
– later, they only went because the Babylonians dragged them
The thing to remember is, God was always with them in the wilderness

As a church we probably think we’ve arrived where God wants us to be
Now all we have to do is sit tight and wait for Jesus to show up

But we probably won’t find him here – Jesus came to find the lost, the insecure
We are more likely to find him in the wilderness
Not a literal wilderness – but somewhere out of our comfort zone
In a place of adventure
Somewhere our routines can’t cope with
Somewhere we’ll be forced to seek God’s help

If this scares you, don’t worry – it scares me too
I believe God has told someone here today where this church should be going
They haven’t told anyone else, because they think what God is saying would scare them

But if we never experienced fear, we wouldn’t need faith
If God hadn’t asked us to trust him, he would never have given us his promise
So let’s open ourselves to God’s word – and get ready to set out


12 July 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Ephesians 1.3-14

You were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance

I’d like to begin by quoting the words of a well-known song by Tom Paxton
Which was originally sung by Julie Felix
And which I used to hear on Children’s Favourites when I was getting ready for Sunday school

Daddy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow,
Zoo tomorrow, zoo tomorrow;
Daddy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow,
We can stay all day.

We’re supposed to be talking about Ephesians today
So why am I quoting a children’s song about a trip to the zoo?

Because Daddy isn’t taking the child to the zoo today
Daddy is taking the child to the zoo tomorrow
Everything the song describes takes place in the child’s imagination

So the song isn’t about the zoo – the song is about the promise
And the power of a promise to make us experience something in the present which has been promised for the future

It’s a children’s song – it’s not complicated
But the things it tells us about promises are the same things Paul tells us about God’s promises
– The promises made to humanity through Abraham, and fulfilled in Jesus Christ

First of all, a promise has the power to change our world
Suddenly, when we gt that promise, we’re someone who is going to the zoo
– someone quite different from the person we were two minutes ago, who was not going to the zoo

The child can already see and hear the animals as if they were really there
Even though the trip and the experience of the zoo are still in the future

So promises make things real – things unseen, things that have yet to happen
But a promise only makes things real if you trust the promise

“Daddy’s taking us to the zoo” – What makes the child trust this promise?
First and foremost, the person who makes it – The promise is made by the child’s father

Our children trust us because we love them
If they can’t trust us, they’ll never trust anyone else
So we try never to let them down
We trust God never to let us down – to be more faithful to us, than we can be to him
Because God is our Father, who loves us more than we are capable of loving him, in this world

Daddy’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow – that’s a promise
Daddy’s taking us to the moon tomorrow – that’s either a game, a fantasy, or a lie
If you are going to trust a promise, you have to believe the person who makes it has the power to honour it
– to do what they have promised to do, or give what they have promised to give

Children trust their parents not to promise things they can’t deliver
They know the kind of good things their parents can do for them
Someone who took you to the beach last week can take you to the zoo tomorrow

We know what God is capable of, because he has revealed his power again and again
He created our world
With a mighty hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors, he led his people out of Egypt
He sent his Son
If we believe the Scriptures, we know God’s track record

As if the Bible wasn’t enough, God gives us evidence we can see in our own lives
He sent the Holy Spirit, who Paul describes as the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory

What is this ‘pledge’? What has it to do with the promise?
When you borrow money, you promise to pay it back
But the lender won’t necessarily trust you – so you have to offer something as security
Banks call it collateral; only pawnbrokers talk about pledges in the modern world

God owes us nothing – the things he’s promised us are things we don’t deserve
But he still gives us collateral, as proof he’ll keep his promise

And the collateral he sends is himself – first the Son, then the Spirit

Finally, think about how this song is put together
There’s a series of verses describing different animals: elephants, monkeys, bears, seals
But every verse is followed by a chorus

We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo;
How about you, you, you?
You can come too, too, too.
We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo.

There’s three things I want to point out in this chorus:
– The repetition
– The sense of excitement; and
– The invitation

First, the repetition
Every chorus repeats the promise: We’re going to the zoo
That’s the thing about the Bible’s promises
They go on being repeated until they are fulfilled

God speaks the same promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – generation after generation
Moses hears the same words of promise as he leads the people to the Promised Land
The prophets hark back to the promises as they warn the people of the consequences of sin

Paul keeps repeating the same things again and again, in different words
– What God did by sending Christ to die for us
– What God promised us, by letting Christ die, then raising him up

We go on repeating the words of promise in our prayers and our worship
Because we can’t hear the words of promise too often – in case we forget, or God’s promises become less real to us
In case we are tempted to be less faithful

Second, the sense of excitement – the excitement of having the father’s promise
This child is so excited about a trip to the zoo
– How excited are you to be going where Jesus tells us we are going?

The excitement ties in with our third point, the invitation
How about you, you, you?
This child is so excited about the father’s promise, they want their friends to become a part of it
You can come too, too, too

I want you to hear the challenge in those words:
– If you’re not excited, have you really received the Father’s promise?
– If you’ve received the promise, and you haven’t shared it, what does that mean?
What is the Father’s promise worth to you?

5 July 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

2 Samuel 5.1-5  2 Corinthians 12.2-10

To keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me

What part does the body play in our spiritual lives?
You might almost think that is a silly question – surely the body and spirit are contrary things? Things at opposite poles?

We think that because our thinking about the body is still highly coloured by the ideas of the Greeks
According to the Greeks we should be trying to climb the ladder of the mind and the spirit, and leave the flesh behind

From there, it’s only a short step to thinking of the flesh as positively evil
But that’s not how the Hebrews saw it, and it’s not how Christians should see it

The problem of sin may take visible form in the flesh
But Christ’s solution is to redeem the flesh, not to deny it

The significant word that unites our two readings is just that: flesh
Second Samuel tells us how
All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh.
They also quote the words of God, who said to David, It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel.

So the people recognise both of David’s claims to kingship
– His blood relationship with them as members of the same people
– His divine appointment to lead them, as their shepherd
The first is a claim that relates to the flesh – life in the world, as part of a community
The second claim relates to the spirit – David’s relationship with God
The claims of flesh and spirit don’t conflict – they confirm and complete each other

If we remember that principle, we’ll be in a better position to understand our other reading, from Second Corinthians

Paul tells us how he was caught up into Paradise
But then he says, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh
These words have been much debated – what is this ‘thorn’?
The Good News Bible tries to settle the question for us – it turns the
thorn into a painful physical ailment, so there is no ambiguity

Physical interpretations of this verse have been quite popular, historically
Some people remind us about Paul’s vision of a blinding light on the Damascus road
They speculate that perhaps his eyes gave him problems ever afterwards

We know Paul had a physically hard life, always travelling, often on foot
He probably slept often on the hard ground
He had experienced beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, and no doubt lots of other falls and accidents
So perhaps the thorn in Paul’s flesh is simply the aches and pains of ageing

Other people think of Paul’s loneliness
We know he did not have a wife
He recommends a single life to people who can bear it
– but the mere fact he puts it in these words suggests he didn’t always find it easy
So perhaps the thorn in Paul’s flesh is sexual longing

The problem these explanations all suffer from is that they think implicitly of the flesh as something to be sacrificed for the sake of the spirit
They foster an ideal of progress in the physical life that emphasises a masochistic pursuit of physical suffering

Which has led to some very unhelpful thinking about the problem of suffering in general
Such as the church encouraging victims of injustice and persecution to accept their suffering and ‘offer it up’, instead of helping them do something about it

If in doubt, read the passage again
Look at the words, and look at the context

Paul is fighting what appears to be a losing battle with opponents in Corinth
These opponents are local Christians who believe they have already experienced resurrection
They think they are already living life in the spirit, immune to the claims and obligations of the flesh
They place an exaggerated value on public demonstrations of spiritual gifts
Particularly talking in tongues

They have been encouraged in these beliefs by other enemies of Paul’s, the ones he ridicules as ‘super-apostles’
Outsiders who have come in and preached against Paul’s doctrines
Smug, self-confident individuals who undermine Paul’s teaching by mocking his puny stature and his lack of skill in public speaking

Paul is saying, if these super-apostles claim to have had extraordinary spiritual experiences, so have I – more, and better
He pretends to be speaking about someone else, but we know it’s really him

Paul says he could boast about these experiences – but he doesn’t
He thanks God for the ‘thorn in the flesh’ that preserves him from the sin of pride
Something that keeps him humbled and tethered, despite his mystical ascents to the spiritual realm
That encourages him to persist in his ministry
So in this context, what is this thorn?

“A thorn in the flesh” or “a thorn in the side” have become figures of speech.
There are many other references to thorns in the Bible, always negative.
– Thorns are unproductive: you can’t eat them
– Thorns get under our skin: they hurt us
– Thorns are a symbol of the curse humans brought on themselves by sinning: God tells Adam and Eve, the earth will bring forth thorns and thistles for you
– In Proverbs, the laughter of fools is like the crackle of thorns burning under a pot
– In the teaching of the prophets, and the teaching of Jesus himself, thorns are the opposite of fruitful branches: they are worthless growth that will be cut down and burned

So what is Paul’s thorn? The clues are in these other references
Physical pain, injury, mockery, pride, stupidity, lack of spiritual fruit

Paul’s thorn is simply human enmity – the backbiting of unsound preachers
It is Paul’s own temptation to impatience, when he has to talk to members of his congregation who have absorbed these unsound teaching
It is his feelings of human inadequacy, when he realises what an unimpressive figure he seems, when people compare him to these ‘super-apostles’

The thorn is the constant need to fight against the influence of these false apostles
The thorn is the necessity to live in community, when it would be so tempting for Paul to turn his back, go away, and pursue his own spiritual visions in a cave on a mountainside

The thorn is the continual battle to do God’s work when circumstances are against it
The thorn is the constant reminder to turn to God, to absorb the hurt and the occasional human defeats, so that through him God can win the final victory

Jean-Paul Sartre said, ‘hell is other people’
Other people are not hell – that’s putting it far too strongly
It also puts ourselves on a pedestal

Other people are not hell – but they can be a thorn in our flesh
Life in community can often be uncomfortable
But perhaps our discomfort is just a reminder of our human weakness
And that’s something we should constantly be reminded of

We are simply too weak to live alone – without other people, and especially without God – and I don’t think we can have one without the other
We are far more likely to encounter God among other people, amongst our own bone and flesh, than by trying to deny them or avoid them

28 June 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Psalm 30.1-5, Mark 5.21-43

Last week’s passage was about the power of words to accomplish works of power:
– Jesus spoke from the boat, and the storm ceased

There are other stories that testify to the power of Jesus’ words
We know the story of the centurion in Matthew ch8 and Luke ch7, whose servant is sick
– The centurion doesn’t ask Jesus to come to his home and heal him
– He simply asks Jesus to speak the healing word

This passage is about embodiment: Jesus speaks, as he always does
But time and again throughout this passage, we see the significance of coming face to face with Jesus
And above all, the importance of touch

If you want to find the meaning of a passage, you have to find its centre
That means, you have to look at its structure

There are two stories here of course, one inside the other
The story of Jairus and his daughter surrounds the story of the bleeding woman

Why are the two stories told together like this?
Because one story sheds light on the other
The story of the bleeding woman helps bring out what is most important in the story of Jairus’s daughter – and vice versa

You notice at once, this passage is full of echoes and parallels:

Both stories are about the power of Jesus’ touch
– Jairus says, “Come and lay your hands on her”
– The woman says to herself, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well”

Both stories emphasise the movements of the characters:
– At the beginning, Jairus begs Jesus to come [walk] and heal his daughter
– At the end, Jesus commands Jairus’s daughter to get up and walk
– At the beginning, Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet, asking him for healing
– Later, the woman healed of her bleeding falls at Jesus’ feet, when he calls her to make herself known

Things near the end of the passage echo things we heard at the beginning
Which leads us to expect that we won’t find the meaning of the passage at either end
We’ll find it in the middle

So what is that middle?
It’s not in the story of Jairus’s daughter; it’s in the story of the bleeding woman

The raising of the child is the final climax:
– But that ends with something apparently mundane, with Jesus’ request that they give her something to eat
– The real climax of the drama is when the woman emerges from the crowd, falls to her knees in front of Jesus “in fear and trembling”, and tells her story

What kind of healing did this woman expect?
Scholars guess she has probably been dealing with pagan doctors
– Their treatment often involved offerings of money to the gods

Of course, we as Christians see the error of making offerings to pagan gods
– But it’s worse than this: because it’s always wrong to try to buy God’s favour
– That’s the difference between magic and religion

Any gift made to any god through an intermediary in return for some concrete gain or positive outcome is magic, not religion
– Religion is trying to do what God wants
– Magic is trying to make God do what we want
– I wonder how much of what we claim to do under the name of religion is really magic, when we look closely at our motives

The woman has tried to buy a cure from the gods, through her doctors
Her failure to find a cure has reduced her to poverty and despair

The irony is, even when she comes to Jesus, she continues to act in this way
– She treats Jesus as an impersonal source of healing
– She creeps up and touches him, as if healing was a substance she could hope to extract from him, rather than a personal gift
– As if she could benefit from Jesus, without any relationship or commitment

She is partly right – she is healed of her illness
But Jesus does not let her off easily – he does not let her slip away
He does not grab her by the collar
He does something much more significant – he commands her to come to him, of her own free will

This is a dramatic passage:
– Not just because of all the excitement of the things that happen
– But because of the dramatic ironies
– The tension between what people think is happening, and what is really going on

So there is a dramatic uncertainty at this moment: who is Jesus actually talking to?
– The disciples assume it’s them
– They almost ridicule him: “How can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”

Of course, the disciples are quite right to say that lots of people have been touching Jesus
– His words are not meant for them: they are intruding on a private conversation
– Between Jesus and the woman, who is at this moment not only nameless but faceless

The disciples miss the significance of the question: what does it matter that someone has touched Jesus?
– Who has touched Jesus that day? Dozens of people – possibly hundreds
– But who is the one who in the act of touching Jesus has been touched?
– and will she admit it?

“Who touched my clothes?”
– It is a rhetorical question: Jesus already knows the answer, and the woman is challenged to recognise that he knows
– To come out of the crowd, to meet Jesus face to face
– To acknowledge him, to recognise him
– Rather than go away as the beneficiary of an anonymous miracle
– I’ll stress this again: healing is not magic
– Healing comes through faith, and faith without confession is nothing

Will she confess? That is the dramatic question this situation poses
– We all know this woman’s condition makes her unclean
– Her blood is a source of impurity for others
– By touching Jesus all she did, in conventional Jewish understanding, was to make him as unclean as she was

The tension rises while we wait, and we ponder the question, what is less likely?
– that Jesus can raise a dead child to life?
– Or that this woman will come clean and tell Jesus her story in front of a crowd of people?

The woman answers our question
She emerges from the crowd, she falls to her knees in front of Jesus, and she makes her confession

What is the greater miracle – the raising of Jairus’s daughter, or the healing of this woman?
– the child is physically dead
– the woman is only socially ‘dead’
– But the one who is really brought back to life is the woman

This passage poses a challenge to us which is no less dramatic than the story itself:
– If this woman is able to speak out and confess her faith, when all the circumstances say she should stay out of sight, what prevents us doing the same?
– What are the barriers of embarrassment or uncertainty about our faith that make us keep silent?
– We say we are Christians, we say we believe, but on whose terms?
– If Jesus has touched you, will you admit it?