Archive for March, 2017

Where do you belong?

Posted: March 28, 2017 in Uncategorized

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light  (Ephesians 5.8)

Three years ago on the fourth Sunday of Lent we studied this passage (John 9.13-34)
Last time, we looked at this passage in terms of sin and suffering

This time I want to change my approach slightly – because this is Mothering Sunday
And even though the Lectionary makes no concessions to Mother’s Day, I couldn’t help noticing how prominent the motif of family is in this passage
This is a story about believing – but it is also a story about identity and belonging

Mothering Sunday was once a day to visit your mother church – the church where you were baptised
I’m not sure if Jewish believers think of their synagogue as a mother

It’ s not impossible – the figure of Wisdom in the Old Testament is definitely female
If the synagogue is the place you acquire this wisdom, you might think of it as a mother
Archaeologists have recovered inscriptions from ruined synagogues honouring women who are described as mother of the synagogue

In any case, expelling the man restored to sight from the synagogue is a symbolic act
The blind man is not just a blind man – he symbolises a whole world of people who have not yet seen God
People who will see the Father through Jesus the Son – if they allow themselves to

There is an opportunity in this story to welcome followers of Jesus into the synagogue
That opportunity is rejected – not by the Jewish people, but by the religious authorities

What this story teaches us, is that Jesus Christ proclaims a new kind of belonging
The truest kind of belonging
But that to reach that state of belonging, you will probably face separation from people and communities you used to belong to
You may even experience rejection and persecution

Let’s re-trace the steps of the story. Jesus enters with the disciples
They ask a question – quite a stupid one, but Jesus seizes on it as a chance to teach
Who sinned, to bring this sightless man’s suffering about?
The answer is no one – this man’s predicament is simply an opportunity for the works of God to be displayed
Which is equally true for all of us – anyone should be able to see we have been changed

Jesus anoints the man’s eyes, and sends him off to wash
The disciples disappear – their job is done
The man returns, now able to see

Now the community appears – the people used to seeing this man begging in a doorway
It becomes clear that the man who was blind no longer belongs in the way he did
True, he answers their questions
But Jesus’ healing has made him into something unfamiliar – an unknown quantity

No one knows what to say, so they do the obvious thing – they appeal to the experts
They go to the Pharisees

The Pharisees are a bit of a disappointment
They are equally unable to grapple with the miracle that has happened
So they do what we all do – they latch onto something they think they recognise

Unfortunately, the only bit of the miracle they recognise is a technicality
It’s the making of the mud Jesus put on the man’s eyes
Which, if you use your imagination you can equate with the kneading of dough
Something which is definitely ‘work’ and therefore not permitted on the Sabbath

This plays into their desire to judge that Jesus is not one of them – that he does not belong
Jesus has apparently broken the Sabbath – he is guilty of not keeping the law of Moses

But condemning Jesus for breaking the Sabbath brings the Pharisees no closer to understanding how the blind man has been given his sight
It makes them less likely to understand
It also creates divisions between them – they quarrel among themselves

They are getting nowhere, so they bring in the blind man’s parents – which reminds us that this is a story about family
The parents acknowledge that this is indeed their child – but they also declare that he is of age and able to speak for himself
In other words, he is responsible for his own views – they are not to be blamed

They say this because they fear being expelled from the synagogue, and their community
Authoritarian rulers rule by dividing through fear

I think the parents are allowed to go home at this point
The blind man is brought back in and quizzed again – this is the centre of the episode

We see all kinds of division and false speaking in this scene
The leaders say, Give God the honour – it sounds pious, but it isn’t
It is a standard courtroom phrase, demanding a confession from a criminal whose guilt has already been demonstrated

The blind man knows now he has nothing to lose, and says what he believes about Jesus
He mocks the people who are accusing him – Do you also want to be his disciples?
His accusers respond with self-righteous words – You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses
They deny Jesus, Son of the living God, in favour of a human being

Finally, they turn on the blind man in indignation: You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?
And they throw him out – not just for the time being, but forever

You probably remember the question the disciples asked Jesus at the beginning: Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
Jesus said then, It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him
What the beginning of the story tells us about the end, is that it’s very easy to miss the point when Jesus performs a miracle
Things happen for a reason, but not the reason either the disciples or the Pharisees think

Jesus goes on to say to the disciples, I am the light of the world
Salvation does not hinge on the fact of sin, but on seeing that light – recognising the works of God in Christ – and that is what it means, for the blind man to receive his sight

So we have the blind man, who sees the light and believes
We have the people of the community, and the blind man’s family, who see the light, but out of the corners of their eyes, because they are uncertain and afraid
We have the Pharisees and synagogue leaders, who stoke up that fear – who don’t want anyone to see

The scene ends with Jesus seeking out the blind man and speaking to him alone
Because now, this man belongs to him
The blind man recognises Jesus, and worships him
The Pharisees appear again to argue with Jesus, and Jesus condemns them

We have here the story of someone healed by Jesus
Who finds he is then divided from his family, his neighbours, and the community of faith

Does that mean it is better not to be healed? Better not to see? Of course not
God’s will is that we should all be healed – we should all come to the light
The problem is, that belonging in Christ sets us at odds with our old ways of belonging elsewhere – until everyone comes to the light

Persecution is not the threat for us it was to early Christian communities
And still today for Christian communities in other places

No one threatens to drag us out of the supermarket and stone us in the car park
But there is a price for seeing things differently

The question this episode raises is, what does it mean to you to belong?
Where do you think you belong? Who do you think you belong to?
Because there’s no real belonging, anywhere except in Jesus

26 March 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton


From landscape to manscape

Posted: March 21, 2017 in Uncategorized

The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem

Who here has visited Stonehenge?
People have always had a powerful sense that Stonehenge is a special place
Just from the huge size of the stones and the mystery of how people all those thousands of years ago were inspired to bring them there and place them so precisely in position

Archaeologists since the 1980s have been far more interested in the place monuments like Stonehenge occupy in the landscape
They want to reconstruct how monuments like Stonehenge were actually used

They talk about ritual landscapes
Stonehenge may be unique, but it is not an isolated monument
There were lots of ritual structures nearby – but no houses: so the whole area was special

They have been able to trace the long journeys people made at festival times
And reconstruct the kind of ceremonies that were taking place

I don’t believe in ley lines, of course
But I do know from the position of one ancient sacred site, you can often see others
To people of the Bronze Age, probably every journey was a type of sacred ritual

You would obviously invoke the protection of your gods over your journey
There were no maps – only memories of older journeys
So every landmark on the way would be associated with the stories of your people
And every step of the journey would connect you with the sacred

We see that kind of mythic geography in the stories and ritual journeys of aboriginal people in Australia to this day – ritual journeys that retell the story of creation
Similarly, the Old Testament is full of stories telling us why this place or that is special
A hill, a valley, a river, a heap of rocks, a stone set up on end as a pillar

Jews of Jesus’ time thought of of Jerusalem not just as the capital of a state, but as the centre of the whole world, the starting point of creation
Which is one reason their feelings towards the Samaritans were so bitter
The stories the Samaritans told about their land and its past were a denial of the truth of the stories of the Jewish people, about their land, their past and their God

But the coming of Jesus signals a shift, from landscape to manscape
We see it dramatised in his encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well

The shift from landscape to manscape is a shift away from the focus on the sacredness of the land
Toward the focus on Jesus Christ

First, on Jesus as a flesh and blood human being
Then, to the spiritual body that is broken and shared in the Lord’s Supper
And the image of all the people in the church as one body, the body of Christ
The body of Christ as the most significant place, the locus of identity, the place of belonging

Last week Nicodemus said it was physically impossible for anyone to be born again
This week the woman at the well says basically, it’s impossible for two peoples to agree where God should be worshipped

But the gospel replaces the physical impossibilities seen by human beings, with spiritual possibilities decreed by God in Jesus Christ
Who cares now whether the true temple is the one on Mount Zion, or Mount Gerizim?
Not one stone on either mountain will be left upon another, within a few decades

Who cares whether Jacob or Joseph really drank from this well?
We have been invited to drink the living water
All who come to that well are spiritually one in Christ; and to share that water is the only form of belonging that matters now

How to break out of the loop

Posted: March 14, 2017 in Uncategorized

How can anyone be born after having grown old?

Have you ever had such a bad day, you wished you could go back to bed and start again?
Have you ever said something hurtful, and wished you could take it back?
Have you ever done something thoughtless or stupid, and wished you could wind back time and do things differently?

It’s hard to think of Adam and Eve in the garden without thinking, I wish we had another chance
We probably think, if we had been the ones chatting to the serpent, we wouldn’t have fallen into his trap; we wouldn’t have eaten the fruit
If only we had another chance

Although the point of the story is that actually, we would have eaten the fruit
We eat that fruit every day, by our own deliberate choice; it’s a major part of our diet
We are always being tempted, and we are always giving in
No matter how many fresh starts God has given us

That’s why we love stories where people are given the chance to go back and put things right
Films like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

You may have seen a film called ‘Groundhog Day’
It is a film starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell that came out in 1993
It is the story of an arrogant weatherman, called Phil, sent out to a small town in Pennsylvania with his producer, Rita, to cover a local festival

The festival is Groundhog Day
The story is that if the groundhog sticks his head out of his burrow and sees his shadow on the 2nd of February, he will disappear underground again and winter will continue for another six weeks
If it’s cloudy he won’t see his shadow; he’ll come out, and spring will begin

Phil the weatherman has nothing but contempt for the story and the assignment
He hates the town and the people

He confidently predicts that a snowstorm that has been forecast will miss the area
He is wrong – a blizzard descends and the town is cut off
He goes to bed feeling thoroughly disgusted

Phil wakes up next morning, switches on the radio, and hears yesterday’s news
Something unbelievable has happened – it’s still Groundhog Day

Phil finds he is stuck in a time loop – he has to live Groundhog Day over and over again
He tries everything he can think of to escape – even committing suicide
But still he wakes every morning to the same song and the same news on the radio

Eventually Phil has a change of heart – he realises he has actually been given a unique opportunity, to correct the mistakes he made when he lived that day for the first time
He gets to know people – he starts trying to help people
He steps in to prevent the bad things he knows are about to happen to them

One ‘day’ Phil confesses his situation to his producer, Rita, who has never liked him
She doesn’t believe him, of course, but they spend the rest of the day together
The day goes perfectly – he’s had plenty of practice by now
She sees how different he is, and how much good he does

They wake next morning in each other’s arms
It’s a new day, but it’s not the same day – Phil has broken out of the loop
He embarks on the challenge of living the rest of his life in a new way

The religious view of Groundhog Day is not a Christian view
It is a karmic view, like the one we find in Asian religions like Hinduism
Karma says, our attitudes and actions determine what happens to us later in this life

Religions that believe in Karma often believe in reincarnation
How we live in this present life determines how we re-enter the world in our next life
Our goal is to live well enough to escape the cycle of reincarnation altogether
That, I think, is what the happy ending in the film represents

It took people a little while to realise what a good film ‘Groundhog Day’ really is
It has powerful themes; redemption, atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation
It speaks both to our desire for both a new beginning, and the chance to put things right in our pasts

I also believe it helps us understand the view of history we find in the Bible
The Bible is not a history book, as we understand it
The Bible, especially the Old Testament, tells the same story again and again
In fact, the Bible story is a series of fresh starts

It goes like this: God makes a people for himself, and makes a covenant with them
They will be his people, and he will be their God
If they obey his commandments they will live and he will bless them

But of course they always disobey and turn away from God
So he punishes them and rejects them

A faithful remnant always survives
God makes a new covenant with that generation, who live faithfully to begin with
But then the cycle of disobedience and judgement begins again

We see in this morning’s story of Abraham (Genesis 12.1-4) the beginning of a cycle
Abraham and Sarah are chosen people
When God calls Abraham to go to a new land, they leave their own people behind to make a fresh start in a new place

On the journey, God promises Abraham to make him the father of a great nation
A people who will be known throughout the world
A people through whom God will bless the whole world

It’s a story full of promise and hope
But scholars tell us this story, in the form we have it now, was written down much later

It was written to encourage a people who were weak and few in number
It was written either during the time the Jews were in exile in Babylon, or when the exiles returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the temple from their ruins

Those people exiled to Babylon were desperate to believe in restoration
They were desperate for a new beginning
They were desperate to believe that God’s promises to Abraham would be fulfilled in them
They were desperate to believe that this time it would not all end in disaster

We also look to Scripture as our source of hope
We do not believe in reincarnation; but we do believe in resurrection
And we believe that when Jesus Christ rose from the grave, a cycle was broken
The cycle of human disobedience leading to divine judgement

We cannot break out of the cycle of sin, judgement and condemnation by ourselves
To vary the metaphor, it’s like launching a satellite using a rocket that hasn’t the power to escape earth’s gravity
It can’t get into orbit – it crashes back down to earth

What is the solution?
In ‘Groundhog Day’, the cycle that trapped Phil the weatherman was broken when he lived one perfect day
In our real world, the cycle that trapped us in sin was broken on the cross

When Jesus died on the cross, he completed the cycle of a perfect human life
A life of perfect obedience to the will of God the Father
The penalty of death for sin could not apply to Jesus, who was guiltless, and he rose from the grave
When he rose, the cycle of sin and condemnation that trapped all of humanity was broken

Nicodemus is right – there is no physical second birth (John 3.1-17)
But there is new birth in the spirit, which unites our lives with the life of Christ
That new birth enables us to live with the freedom Jesus lived with
It makes us truly children of the promise, no longer people under judgement

The new birth is a mystery to the people around us – they find it hard to believe in
Our job is to show them, by the way we live, and work, and worship, that the new birth is real

12 March 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Can I tempt you?

Posted: March 5, 2017 in Uncategorized

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil

We begin a new season of the church year, the season of Lent
Yet we continue to pursue themes we have been following in the last few weeks

Over the past few weeks, we have been looking at the Law, wisdom and righteousness
Arching above them all is the greatest biblical theme, the theme of God’s love

We have heard how God presented his people with a straightforward choice
Between obedience and disobedience, blessings and curses, life and death

This week in the New Testament we looked at Matthew’s story of how Jesus was tempted in the wilderness (Mat 4.1-11)
It’s a story set right at the start of his Jesus’ ministry on earth
Just as the story of Adam and Eve in the garden is set at the beginning of human life on earth (Gen 2.4-17, 3.1-7)
These are the origins and the beginnings of things – that is what ‘genesis’ means

The temptation in the wilderness encapsulates everything about Jesus
– It is ultimately a testimony to his love of the Father and his obedience to his Father’s will
– Which is what the cross is all about

The temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden encapsulates everything about humanity
– Our weakness when faced with temptation
– How thoughtlessly yet deliberately we rise up out of our place and reject God
– How even when we reject him, God continues to love and provide for us
– Yet there are still consequences: difficult and painful consequences

We collectively have a very dangerous attitude to temptation
We love to be teased – we love to tease ourselves. Advertisers know this
Search for be tempted on Google – what do you get?
Cupcakes, perfume, tea shops – harmless little indulgences, we think

But theologically, temptation is the root of spiritual death
Temptation is like the serpent – a small, dangerous voice we allow to speak to us
The voice of temptation we tolerate within ourselves is what makes every sin possible

Temptation is covetousness: it says, you deserve more than God has given you
Temptation is faithlessness: it says, why wait for God? Whatever you want, take it now
Temptation is pride; it says, you are smarter than God; God won’t know; you can sneak things past God
Listening to that voice is a failure of love, and the ultimate demonstration of arrogant human stupidity

Genesis tells us how God first presented the people he had made with a moral choice
The tale of Adam and Eve is really just a story-teller’s way of saying, that every human being who has ever woken to life and consciousness has known they had a choice
To do the right thing, or the wrong thing

Remember Deuteronomy 30.19: Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make.
Adam and Eve are faced with that choice
God gives the people he has made just one commandment – but that single commandment offers them the choice between obedience and disobedience, life and death, blessings and curses

God tells them, they can freely eat of practically everything in the garden
This promise is a symbol – a symbol of God’s continual blessing
The fruit will never run out

There is nothing symbolic about the consequences of the other choice, about the consequences of disobedience: in the day that you eat of it, of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall die

People have wrestled since the beginnings of the scientific age over the question whether the stories in Genesis are true or symbolic
The question is a false one, because ancient writers would not understand what we mean by asking whether a story like this is ‘true’

For us today the question is still a false one, because symbolic stories are true in their own way
The power of symbolic stories is that they represent truth so well
They speak to our hearts and imaginations in ways that newspaper reports never do

The danger of thinking of this as a real story is that it tempts us to think of it as an account of something that happened a long time ago and a long way away
A story about something that happened to someone else; something someone else did
Whereas the significance of the story of Adam and Eve is that it is actually about us
It’s about the things we do or are tempted do, all the time

I am happy to say, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is not a literal tree – it is a symbolic tree
Just as the rivers in the introduction are symbolic rivers – even if a couple of them have the names of real rivers

So the commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree is not a literal commandment – it is a symbolic commandment
It is meant to tell us something important about the nature of commandments
Though the God who gave it is certainly real

If you like, you can imagine the story transplanted to a living room
Your friend welcomes you in and says, sit anywhere you like – make yourself at home
But please don’t touch the ornaments on the mantelpiece

You think, what’s so special about your ornaments? Why can’t I touch them?
When your friend goes to put the kettle on, maybe you decide to take a closer look …

We can tell the tree in the Garden is not a literal tree – is it a magic tree?
Is it the fruit itself that gives the knowledge of good and evil?
No – the knowledge of good and evil comes from eating the fruit
Not just from picking the fruit, mark you, but from eating it – because that is the act that is forbidden

How does God know Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit?
Well of course he knows because he is God – he doesn’t have to do lab tests

But how do Adam and Eve betray themselves?
They betray themselves by their behaviour, which is motivated by their guilty consciences
Guilty consciences they didn’t have before – which didn’t exist before in creation
So at least human beings can claim the credit for having invented something

The knowledge of good and evil Adam and Eve gain by eating the fruit, the knowledge they were so anxious to have, is simply the knowledge they have eaten the fruit that God told them not to eat

Scientia potentia est: it’s a well-known Latin phrase that means, knowledge is power
A thousand sci-fi films and political thrillers have been made, based around that idea
The idea of some great secret that gives its owner power over the whole world

But the secret knowledge which Adam and Eve acquire through their disobedience is a very paltry thing
The human knowledge of good and evil is not a powerful universal wisdom – it’s not the secret of some mighty weapon that gives you power over the whole world
It is just the awareness of our own sin and guilt – and the loss of God’s blessings

Yet God is faithful, and hope is never lost
The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is the same story told over and over again
God’s people disobey him
They are rejected and driven out; they endure the misery of exile
They are re-accepted and taken back

The greatest of these stories is the New Testament story of Jesus himself
Jesus leaves the presence of the Father to enter our world
He accepts this loss on our behalf – us who endure it through our own fault

Jesus wanders in the wilderness
He endures earthly tyranny, estrangement from his own people, torture and death

He is betrayed to death by one of his own followers
Judas, who listens to the voice of temptation and acts from pride

Jesus suffers these things from obedience, not disobedience
And so the curse of death cannot hold him
The spirit of life and blessing triumphs
He is not only restored to life, but raised to the highest place at the Father’s side

That is the paradox; that is the meaning of Easter
I look forward to exploring these things with you again in the coming weeks

5 March 2017, St George’s, High Heaton