Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Dial 'F' for Fear

This was my sermon for St. Andrew's evening service last Sunday (27th April). The readings were Daniel 6:1-23  & Mark 15:42-16:8.
Right, your starter for ten... who said “the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself”?
(That's right) Franklin D. Roosevelt, at his inauguration as the 32nd President of the United States, on Saturday March 4, 1933. FDR took swore his oath with his hand on his family Bible, which was opened to 1 Corinthians 13. Interestingly it remains the oldest Bible ever used in an inaugural ceremony, published in 1686, and was written in Dutch. Roosevelt came to power while the USA was in the grip of the Great Depression, which he himself blamed on bankers and financiers, the quest for profit, and the self-interest basis of capitalism (sound familiar?) He brought about a major realignment of American politics, as well as instituting unprecedented programs for relief, recovery and reform.

But this isn't a lecture in American politics. Yet fear is a motif in both our Old and New Testament passages this evening. The last line of Mark's gospel – as any of the text after 16:8 is most likely written by a different author looking to tie up the loose ends of Mark's account – tells us “terror and amazement” seized the two Marys and Salome; so much so that “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Mark's knack of portraying the very human failings of the ordinary men & women who were the first followers of Jesus thus continues right to the end of his Gospel. If we look through the book as a whole the lack of faith, the propensity to misunderstand, the fear and confusion of the disciples is laid out for all to see, and given it is believed by some that the source for Mark's information was Peter himself, it's almost comforting to see this is what the disciples interaction with Jesus was like. To think that Mark doesn't hide the fact that these followers, who had been with Jesus for such a long time, had remained to the point of his death and beyond, disobeyed a direct instruction from what appeared to be an angel maybe makes some of our failings seem less terrible.
Then again, they would have had good reason to be afraid. The body was missing – the authorities would not be happy, especially if they started telling people Jesus wasn't really dead! And now the religious leaders had shown they weren't beyond killing off the odd troublemaker, on false charges, for deviating from their view of God, it would be their lives on the line. Does that possibly put some of our fears over talking about our faith into perspective?
Our Old Testament passage gives a different take on this. Daniel knows that praying to anybody or anything except the king is a death sentence. Yet he openly continues to pray, three times a day, knowing full well he will be seen & condemned. He sees his commitment to God as more valuable than his own life, and refuses to hide his faith, even to the point of death. Obviously in this case it works out for the best – Daniel survives, his persecutors are punished and King Darius makes a decree that all his subjects should “tremble and fear before the God of Daniel.”
Fortunately for us we are not in the same danger as Daniel or the three women at the tomb. In Britain, however uncomfortable it can feel to identify ourselves as a Christian we do not live in fear of our lives for proclaiming Christ as Lord & saviour. This week we have seen this in action. The Prime Minister makes a public statement on his view of the faith of this country, and his own personal beliefs. Some others disagree with him – so they write a letter saying they think he's wrong, and the press debate it for a week.
In contrast, in the Central African Republic this week alone two priests were killed, four others briefly detained and a number of villages were attacked by ex-Seleka fighters. In Syria, a Christian school was bombed.
Hanna, a Christian living in Damascus, explains:
“There is a Christian school, a private one. We know a lot of people in that school, some children from our area also go to school there. Yesterday, when those kids went to school, gathered at the square like they always do, a mortar fell in their midst. Some friends passed by the school and saw how parents and teachers were carrying their wounded children out of the school, dripping with blood. How they were running to the hospitals in panic. For me, as a mother and a teacher, I can hardly bear to imagine what these people must be going through right now. Twelve people lost their lives in that school yesterday, most of them children from the elementary school. Many more of them have lost arms and legs or have other injuries.”
How do we respond to stories like this – and we must, as these are our brothers and sister. Our friend FDR explained the 'fear' he was talking about – the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes...” Do we feel, like the women at Jesus tomb, paralyzed by the enormity of the task? Are we scared that we cannot do anything to help those being persecuted, or that we won't be able to explain how we can believe a Jewish man who died a criminal's death almost 2000 years ago can make a difference to our lives today!
Yet the women did pass on the message, eventually – the other gospels point to this, and without the news of Jesus resurrection we would not be sitting here today. The task is enormous, but Daniel shows us the way to approach any impossible task – prayer. Constant, unceasing prayer. Prayers of thanks for the comparative safety of our lives, prayers for the world leaders who have the ability to make a difference in these situations, prayers for the individuals suffering daily. To help with this, I've got a copy of the charity Open Doors World Watch List for you to take away. (See below) Read it, use it in your prayer time, and come back and talk to me if you want to know more.
Sometimes prayer is hard – sometimes all we can do is turn up & say “Lord, help me to want to pray!” And prayer can be scary, as it's a conversation, and you never know what God's going to say. But I know prayer makes a difference – you only have to look at the last few months of my life to see that. Daniel knew prayer made a difference, and was unashamed of it. So let us pray for those who are persecuted for their faith, and for those leaders who have the power to make the difference in these situations. Let us pray that David Cameron will put his recently declared faith into practice in his party's policies, so that Archbishop Justin's remarks that "even as the economy improves, there is weeping in broken families, in people ashamed to seek help from food banks, or frightened by debt" – that crippling fear again - will become a footnote in the history of our country.
1 John 4:18 tells us “perfect love casts out all fear.” We are privileged to have access to the source of that love – so my prayer is that we all can find the courage to live like Daniel, glorify the Father like Daniel, and show the whole world that great Easter gift of perfect love – in the name of Jesus Christ who lived, died and rose again for the whole world, including me & you, and through the power of the Holy Spirit who moves in us & through us. Amen.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

That sinking feeling...

This is the sermon I preached at last night's Tuesday of Holy Week Eucharist. The readings were Isaiah 49:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 and John 12:20-36.
There is an oft-told story of a clergyman who decided to go on a sailing trip. After a few days on the high seas he ran into trouble – a massive storm swirled about him, and before he knew it his ship was struck by a huge wave, and he lost consciousness. He awoke to find he was floating on a small piece of wreckage, adrift in the ocean, utterly alone & helpless. 
    “Lord, I have dedicated my life to your service,” he prayed.  
    “Please save me!”
Just then, a sailing boat, about the same size as his had been, came into view.
    “Climb up!” cried the lady on board.
    “No, it's ok,” said the clergyman, “the Lord will save me!”
An hour later, a large ship appeared alongside him.
    “I'll throw you a rope and pull you up” called the captain.
    “No thanks,” came the reply, “the Lord will save me!”
Two hours later, now suffering from severe exhaustion, the sound of rotors caught the clergyman's attention. A helicopter hovered overhead, and the pilot hailed him.
    “Don't worry, I'll send down the winch.”
    “No, it's fine, the Lord will save me!”
Finally, the clergyman could hold on no longer, slipped beneath the waves and was drowned. Standing at the pearly gates, he was furious.
    “I gave you all I had in that life, why didn't you save me!” he fumed.
    “What do you mean?” replied God, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter, what more did you want!!”

Ok, so it's a bad joke. But sometimes, if we're honest, we can feel a bit like our hapless clergyman. If God wanted to be heard, why can't he just speak to me directly – really get my attention, instead of making me guess at the ordinary being symbolic. However, in our gospel reading, God does just that – and we see a similar and equally human response to that of the clergyman - they turn the exceptional into the mundane.

Jesus has just made his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem; the crowd who saw him raise Lazarus from the dead are following Him, and the Pharisees even remark “the whole world has gone after Him!” – confirmed when Greeks turn up to see Him. Then He begins to talk about how He is to die – hard to grasp things that don’t fit in with the people’s ideas of the coming messiah, or even a great rebel leader.

Finally He gives glory to His Father and, suddenly, the voice of God rings out, affirming Jesus and His mission. Imagine this for a moment – a voice from heaven, declaring the words of this man to be true. They all turned up to see a miracle, and now one has occurred…
BUT it isn’t the miracle they wanted, a spectacular feat they can gasp at – so they pretend it didn’t happen. “Its just thunder!”

Do we ever find ourselves dismissing events that don’t fit our own agenda? Do we miss the miraculous occurrences, those out-of-the-blue moments as we don’t like what we hear, or are too preoccupied with what we think should be happening? Do we close our eyes to the possibility God is speaking to us?

We can run the risk of doing the same with the story of Jesus' passion – we know the narrative so well we can almost skip through it, let the pain and the blood and the nails pass us by as we anticipate the joy, the celebration, the chocolate of Easter day. The miraculous happens right before our eyes – the Christ is crucified, the dead man rises – yet we miss it in the rush. And as Paul tells the church in Corinth, and continues to tell us today, this truly is the key to the whole story. Paul was an expert Jew; his persecution of the church was motivated by his Pharisaic conviction that, by definition, a Messiah who suffered death must be an impostor; something not just confirmed by his being found guilty by the authorities but, seen through Deuteronomy 21:23, confirmed by God - “anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse.”

But Paul’s conversion experience revolutionised his religious convictions. His descriptions of life in Christ radically reinterprets the tradition of the sacrificial death of Christ by reversing the very conviction we just mentioned, speaking of Jesus' death not as God’s curse but the redemptive centre of God’s judgement and love for a lost world.

The phrase “…but we proclaim Christ crucified…” from 1 Corinthians 1:23 should possibly be translated either “a Christ crucified” or “a crucified Christ,” as to translate simply “Christ crucified” seems to lose some of the force of the point Paul is making. To put his words in their original context, if “wisdom” conjured up ideas of achievement, success, and the path to honour and esteem in the 1st century traditions, the cross of Christ would be seen as it’s polar opposite. To renounce all power of your own and to place your trust in the action of 'an Other' is contrary to all that the “Greeks” or gentiles understood about the path to success, making it foolish indeed. Similarly, if “signs” are understood to mean a reversal of Jewish political fortunes a humiliated Messiah would certainly be a huge stumbling block.

So Paul is addressing both Jews and gentiles on the equal footing of them both being self-styled ‘critics.’ However, to those Jews and Greeks who have been called, he says, the cross of Christ is the thing which conveys God’s strength and wisdom. Paul reminds them that God’s foolish wisdom has been demonstrated in their own experience, as they have embraced the gospel solely on the basis of God’s call, not due to their own intellect, power or status. In fact, Christ has become for them their “wisdom from God” and, underpinned with a quote from Jeremiah 9:22-23, their boast may now only be in the Lord.

The death and resurrection of Jesus are absolutely basic to Paul’s faith. His whole letter to the Corinthians is written as a means of helping them to understand the ‘foolish wisdom’ of the cross. Failure to grasp this absurd gospel, this story of a crucified criminal, appears to lay at the heart of the problems in Corinth, where Paul’s converts had not begun to see that good news based on a cross carried certain implications about their own lifestyle. You see, to keep your social standing in Corinthian society you had to participate fully in the main communication methods of the day, which involved sacrificial meals. Therefore, to be seen as an “atheist” or “impious,” by rejecting meat that may have been sacrificed to idols, could lead to rejection and loss of standing.

One reason the Corinthian church didn't receive the social exclusion experienced by its sister church in Thessalonica was possibly because the leading converts deliberately “played down” the offensiveness of their faith. But their failings gave Paul the opportunity to expand on the tradition he had left with them, and proclaim that those who accept this “shameful” gospel, and who are willing to identify themselves with Christ’s crucifixion and dishonour will receive, not earthly reward, but the promise of “strength that works through weakness and the joy that transforms pain.” Sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ is all part of Paul’s understanding of Jesus solidarity with humanity. Although the members of the Corinthian church continue to share in the weakness of Adam in this life, Paul maintains that, on the last day, they will exchange the likeness of Adam for the likeness of Christ.

But this is not just a historical document – Paul's words, inspired by his knowledge of God's kingdom, speak just as much to us today. How easy is it in our ever-so clever post modern society to keep quiet about our foolish faith, under the onslaught of the 'wisdom' of the age, the continuous stream of self-help, self-reliance, insular me-ness that we are told is the only way to get ahead.

How much safer, simpler, more sensible, to blend into the crowd like a chameleon instead of challenging the norms of our society. And I'm not really talking about those issues the media claim we as Christians are only interested in – fighting about what women & homosexuals can or can't do – but what Christians should be interested in – things like giving a voice to those trapped in poverty, those marginalised by virtue of where they were born, those kept downtrodden to maximise the profits of those who already have more than they could ever need. This is part of the call in the passage from Isaiah, the messianic figure being “a light to the nations, that [God's] salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

And the people who followed Jesus in our Gospel reading were drawn to His light – indeed, he declares Himself to be the light after the voice has spoken, and in John 8:12 He declares He is “the light of the world.” Yet they were put off by His message, even the miraculous affirmation, as it didn’t fit.

You see, when we experience the light, we are also challenged to show that light to others. To show this sacrificial, life-changing, world altering love to all we meet, even to those who we don't know! Yet too often we ‘hide our light under a bushel’ when we need to let God’s presence shine out from us! We can dismiss the everyday miracles instead of seeking God’s word through them. Those small acts, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that can add up to a big difference. Of course, if we let the light shine out, we need to be willing to back it up by listening to God’s word for those around us – allowing the prompting of the Spirit to illuminate the lives of others.

And that's the challenge for us tonight, this week, this year – are we willing to put ourselves in the position of the three others in the story of the clergyman – the sailor, the ship's captain & the helicopter pilot – and go where the Holy Spirit leads us to save those adrift in this world. The church isn't a rest home for saints – it's a lifeboat for sinners. Our job is to get people into the lifeboat, and then let the light of Jesus guide us all safely home. Yes, this path is costly - it needs work, and time spent in prayer and reading the scriptures, to have a hope of getting anywhere – but compared to the price Jesus paid to give us the chance, I think we can cope. And that is perhaps the greatest of the everyday miracles – we have the gift, the ability, to spend time with the architect of our faith, God's own Son Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again for each of us in here tonight, and for every single person out there too. We can talk with Him, read with Him, allow Him to help us. Such simple things, so easy to take for granted, yet truly miraculous and life changing. God does want to speak to us – and wants to speak through us. We just have to watch, listen, and follow the light.