Articles

A sermon for Easter II (Low Sunday) 2020

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 18/04/2020 - 12:35

Low Sunday 2020 Year A Easter II

In Roman Egypt travellers sailing down the Nile would invite the local priests on board:

“… to give lectures on the greatest geographical issue of ancient times: the source of the Nile. Did it flow into Africa from the River Oceanus that encircled the earth? Or did it burble directly from the ground? And how did it flood like clockwork every year, without any rains? … Itinerant ivory traders knew that the Nile’s tributaries were filled by springtime rains in the mountains to the South (in modern Uganda). But the reports of these rustics were dismissed out of hand by all respected ancient thinkers: Any idiot could see the sun’s heat actually increased the farther south one travelled, singing men’s skin to the colour of ash, so these verdant mountains could not exist.”                                           Tony Perrottet in Route 66 A.D.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”                                                                                                                                               John 20:25b

I have never had a problem with Thomas’ doubt. Actually, I know myself well enough to say that I too would have disbelieved my friends and thought them mad, telling me that Jesus was alive. I would really have wanted some proof before I would have said I believed he was not dead. Many of us are like this, I suspect. We like to be able to see things or experience them to believe them to be true or real. There are very few of us who would take the word of another in something as remarkable as the resurrection!

I feel a great empathy with Thomas and this Gospel passage is one that speaks deeply to me. In fact Thomas is one of my ‘saintly heroes’ and I have an ikon of him permanently on the mantel shelf in the drawing room. He gives me encouragement to go on even when I feel overwhelmed with questions and doubt about my faith and the institution of the church.

It does seem absurd that a man could be raised from the dead, especially after he has experienced such a horrendous death. Like Thomas I am someone who likes proof of such things but I don’t always accept what I see as proof either. When I was studying science at University I used to argue that there were no scientific facts per se but only observed phenomena, which may or may not be as we had interpreted them. I was always seeking a deeper answer and meaning and as a result somewhat sceptical of what I first saw or was told. I think now that I must have been a complete pain! But it does explain to me why I feel comfortable with a ‘grey’ faith and ‘grey’ theology.

What I mean by this is that, as I perceive it, there can never be any black and white answers to questions of our faith or to questions about God. How can we ever say that this is so or that is so? Take scripture: I have never been able to accept the idea that it has to be accepted literally because it was in some way ‘dictated by God’. I know that the Bible as we have it was put together by a committee or ecumenical council, when the assembled theologians voted on which books went in and which books were left out. This is not to say that the Bible is wrong but more to acknowledge that it contains within itself enough for our salvation. That it is not to be taken literally but interpreted through prayer and thoughtful study. For me the idea of adopting a literal understanding of scripture is to try and encompass God in a collection of human words. And, I don’t think that God can be encompassed and controlled in that way – for who is greater; the Creator or the creation?

Yes! I am a good liberal and I am not ashamed to be such either. In bits of the church today, you get the idea that there is only one way to believe in God and his works. I find those who believe they have the ultimate understanding of the mind of God scary because you have to be ‘perfect’ before God will love you and I have always believed that in his death Jesus proved that God loves each of us just the same. Jesus did not die for selected sinners but for all of us to prove the extent of God’s love for ALL of us.

Desmond Tutu reinforced this belief in an inspiring sermon he preached in 2004 at Candlemass:

“How incredibly, wonderful, it is that God says to you, to me: ‘There is nothing you can do to make me love you less. I take you, I take you very seriously, I take you – you- body and soul, you the visible and the invisible of you, I love you, I love you, I love you’.”

This is my hope that I am loved for me by God just as much as you are loved for you and my hope finds proof of this in Thomas’ scepticism.

Picture it: Jerusalem spring 33 A.D. -ish. A room in a locked house. A group of friends, except Thomas, the followers of a crucified preacher have gathered to mourn the loss of their leader. Then suddenly, he’s there among them! They must have been ‘gob-smacked’! How did he do that? Was it really him? Did he not really die? Wow! It is not surprising that Thomas couldn’t get his head around the idea that Jesus had returned to them from the dead.

Then the following week the disciples are gathered again and this time Thomas is with them and Jesus appears again and this time encourages Thomas to feel his wounds, to prove that he is not a fake. This for me is proof of love.

Jesus need not have returned and satisfied Thomas’ doubt but he did and he did so because he loved Thomas as much as the others and wanted him to know that he was alive, not dead.

It’s a bit like hearing that an old friend is in town and that some of your mates have seen him but you haven’t. You might be left feeling somewhat left out or snubbed – only to get a visit from your friend who says they wanted to spend time with you on your own because you are special to them. You’d probably feel very loved knowing how important you are to your friend.

This is what Jesus was doing. He was telling Thomas that he was important to him and that he understood why he could not believe what the others had told him. Couldn’t you hear yourself say:

“I don’t believe you. Come on that is too fanciful; you must have been hallucinating or drunk?”

For me it is Thomas’ very human reactions that encourage me to believe in the resurrected Jesus. I have never seen Jesus but yet I would want to say that I know him and am loved by him. I say this because of the ways in which I experience him in the love I receive from others. Jesus, I believe, is a loving presence in all of us – whether we acknowledge him or not – and the Gospel accounts of his life and ministry are there as examples of how we can lead a good life in the service of others. And in attempting to live this life we come to know Jesus better and feel bound to others who are trying to do the same.

Jesus led a life fuelled by love and that love can fuel the lives we live for it is that love that binds us together and it is that love that enables us to do the things we thought impossible – like touching Jesus’ wounds.

I will always be a sceptic but if Thomas is anything to go by, then I think I am in good company. So take heart all of you who doubt like Thomas, for doubt can lead you to truth. It may not be an easy path to follow but it will be a fascinating journey.

Amen.         

There is however one thing I am not a sceptic about and that is the source of the Nile in Uganda. I have actually put my finger in it!

Easter Week 2020

Submitted by Dean on Wed, 15/04/2020 - 15:01

This year, for all of us, Easter has been celebrated very differently. Many have worshipped at home joining in the Spiritual Communion as I have celebrated the Eucharist at Church. Others have followed one of our Bishops offering the Eucharist from somewhere in Scotland and live streaming it to the web and others will have followed services on the television or radio. Our church buildings may have to be closed but we are still able to be 'church' and to inter-connect with each other as we worship our God. 

If Easter teaches us anything then it is that things can and do change and can be renewed in different ways. When Jesus rose from the dead he came back changed in some way. In fact his followers didn't recognise him initially, he was different. The church and ourselves included have had to learn, in these past few weeks, how to be different and to do 'church' in new ways. Using the website, facebook, live streaming etc. are new ways to many of us but to others they are quite familiar but at least many of us now have experience of these ways of doing things and that is all for the good. For those very familiar with these approaches it is perhaps an opportunity for them to engage with church for the first time or to re-engage after a lapse or time away and for the church it is good that we are reaching out to more people in new ways. Being different or doing things differently is always a challenge but it is a challenge our Lord calls us to accept. 

This 'lockdown' time is a challenge in so many ways but the unexpected blessings it is also giving is a gift. Time to learn new skills and to reach out to so many in new ways; re-connecting or connecting with friends old and new and simply finding ways of being church that are both familiar and new is exciting as much as it is terrifying. Our faith in Christ is always new and never static. We can always discover new things about Jesus and his Father as we pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance.

Above all things at this time it is prayer, whether it be private or 'on-line' or whatever - that is the most important thing we Christians can be doing. Prayer is the thing that unites us with God and each other and it is prayer that we can offer when we simply do not know what else to do. Prayer is never wasted or futile, it shows our care and concern and our hope for better things in the future. 

Keep on praying for all at this time; those in need, those on the front-line and those anxious and confused: 

Loving God, source of healing and comfort, fill us with your grace; that the sick may be made whole, that those who care for us will be strengthened, that those bereaved will be comforted, that the anxious will be calmed, and those most vulnerable be protected in the power of the Spirit, in the faith of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

A sermon for Easter Day 2020

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 11/04/2020 - 18:21

Easter Day Sunday 12th April 2020   Year A

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene, acme to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” John 20:1

So begins John’s gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection. Most of the attention is focused on what happened once Mary Magdalene realised that the tomb was open. How she ran to get the disciples and how she encountered the risen Jesus in the garden. It is exciting but have you ever considered to time before Mary Magdalene discovered that the tomb was open and Jesus was alive?

Mary Magdalene and the disciples were the first to encounter the risen Jesus but as far as we know were was NO witness to the actual point of Jesus’ resurrection! For the resurrection happened inside the sealed tomb. in the darkness of the cave from which the tomb was hewn! To quote the theologian Barbara Brown Taylor:

“Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him after (the resurrection). Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark.”

      From ‘Learning to walk in the dark’  P.129

When I re-read Brown-Taylor’s words recently I was struck by the similarity between Jesus resurrection and his birth. Jesus was born in a stable or more likely a cave used as a stable. Caves made the best stables in Palestine 2000 odd years ago; they had no draughty corners and were warm and secure on three sides from attack. The tomb was also a cave. Both of these caves today are covered in elaborate church structures. The Caves are still there, though offering their protection to the holy and sacred sites.

There is, I think, also a parallel to be drawn between the darkness of the tomb and the process of Jesus’ re-birth and the Virgin’s womb and his birth as a baby. Both the tomb and the womb are dark and protective spaces and until relatively recently little was known, let alone seen, of what actually went on in the womb during pregnancy.

Today we can see in to the womb and glimpse the developing child. I have been awe-struck by the ultra-sound images of my grandchildren and great nieces and nephews. Jeremiah’s words have never seemed so true:

“ I knew you in the womb be for I formed you.”           Jeremiah 1:5

Every time I see the next generation issuing from my sons, niece and nephew I realise how much I have loved those grands and greats from first seeing their scans. the womb is now a less mysterious space but the process of life is NO less amazing!

The process of Jesus’ second birth, his resurrection is just as amazing as the prices of his conception and birth. So amazing, in fact, that we cannot ever fully comprehend it. We do perhaps get glimpses of this process from those who have ‘died’ and have been resuscitated - my William for a start! It took a significant amount of energy to bring him back and that was pretty soon after a cardiac event. How much more power and energy did it take to restore Jesus to life after three days? God alone knows!

Actually, I am quite glad that it is only God who knows how resurrection happened. Resurrection is meant to be a mystery, something we ponder on and pray about NOT something we explain away and ultimately ignore. It is meant to be sometime that inspire us and encourages us to look for the glimpses of new life, re-birth and resurrection in our own lives.

We all do experience resurrection - those times when our lives change unexpectedly and hopefully for the better. Times when our health improves or we recover from something; times when we learn to something that we were unable to do before and those times when we fall in love. We often don’t see those times coming but when they do arrive they can change us and bring us great joy.

We don’t usually see them coming as they tend to ‘develop in the dark’ unknown or unseen. Yet their power can be amazing, just like Jesus’ resurrection today.

Today is nothing short of a miracle. Do not try to explain it away let what went on in the dark of the tomb fascinate you and let it live in you. Rejoice in it and let its celebration of new life permeate your whole being and bring you new life too. Barbara Brown-Taylor goes on to say:

“Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark. … As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons I have never heard anyone talk about that part. Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. … I let this sink in: new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark. …”            P.129

In the light and brightness of this Easter Day; a very strange Easter Day with our churches closed and the world locked down to resist the Covid19 pandemic; we still need to celebrate the darkness of the tomb, for like the darkness of the womb it brought forth new life. If anything else today tells us that the darkness is not something to be afraid of because it is something that leads to the light.

The last few weeks have seen some dark times but the light is there and we are being led forward into its brightness. This is what Jesus’ resurrection teaches us. There is always light and hope and we will always come though dark times into brighter days. It may be a tough and agonising journey but Jesus will be with us and God will be surrounding us even if we are unaware of his presence at the time.

‘Alleluia! He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia! Amen.