A Fishy Tale

Simon falls to his knees in shame as his whole adult life flashes before his eyes. Simon is a fisherman, not the most delicate of occupations, and neither is his language, or even some of his actions. He has been known to share fisherman’s stories over a jar or two after a tough night out and the stories don’t always ring true. There have been less nights with the lads since getting married as he has been keen to get back to the comforts of his wife after battling the winds and rains of a perfect storm in the dark, but before then……. well even Simon blushes a little to think about some of his antics. Especially here and now, with the rabbi in front of him.

Of course Simon had heard about the preacher. Jesus had kicked up quite a storm himself with his teaching that rocked the Pharisees boats, and people liked to hear what he had to say. Lots of people in fact, which is how Jesus and Simon are alone together on the family boat. Simon had been washing the nets after a tough night on the water with nothing to catch. There were no tall tales to tell and he just wanted to get home. But Jesus, had stepped away from the crowds and into the boat, his boat, and asked to be rowed out a little way. So he had. Never been very  good at saying No.

And as Jesus spoke, Simon listened; so close to the teacher he could practically see his heart beat with passion and his souls shine with heaven, and it was contagious.

As Jesus finished, he asked if Simon wouldn’t mind rowing out a little further, right into the deep water. The more Simon rowed the more the crowd dispersed. The sun was shining and Jesus sat with his eyes closed, soaking in the sun, resting his eyes. Then he opened them sharply, and Simon saw them twinkle with the water’s reflection, and then was amazed, as this carpenter turned rabbi began to give him instructions on how to fish. Deciding not to take offence, Simon lowered the nets, after all , if they came back up with even a singe fish, that could be supper; yet as Simon began to heave the nets in, he could tell from their weight that he was looking at a haul larger than supper, and larger than he could handle even with the help of Jesus’ carpenter’s strength, so he called his cousins, who brought their boat and together they landed their largest ever catch. From one net enough fish to overfill both boats.

And that’s when it happened. Simon saw all the good in Jesus and all the sinfulness in himself, and sank to his knees in sorrow and the knowledge that he cold never be good enough to keep this man company, this rabbi, this…Lord.

And yet, before they had landed all the fish, had chance to clean the nets once more and head to the market, Jesus had lifted Simon and called him to himself. Wiping way all that had gone before, Jesus showed Simon, and his fishing partners a glimpse of their new life, reeling people into the kingdom, into God’s presence, just as they had been.

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Summer is Icumen in, Sing Cuckoo: Candlemas

The winter seems to drag on for ever. January turns to February and the Christmas season,even in the most observant churches, finally comes to an end. The days are getting longer, but the winter seems to be getting colder. There will be snow in March again, we are warned.

As we tire of the winter blues, we look for signs of spring: the snowdrops are out and the shoots of daffodils can be seen poking out of the ground. If cuckoos can’t yet be heard, woodpeckers can.

The plough will be brought into church this evening and blessed, along with all who work her and benefit from their toils. The seed also will be blessed, carried into church by the younger generations of farmers as we look for things to come.

Today’s prophet also looked for things to come. He is the last to speak God’s words of warning and hope, before there is silence for 400 years.The book named after him is the last in the Old Testament.

Malachi stands like a beacon at the end of the Old Testament. He shines for God’s truth at a dreary and dispirited time in Israel’s history. Although the Jews have returned from exile and the temple has been rebuilt, there is a strong drift away from God.

Andrew Knowles

Amidst the prophecies he has to speak is one that rings so true to one man that he lives his whole life in accordance with it. Simeon takes this as his own personal promise, he will see the Lord in his temple, and he will seek him with the whole of his being. Anna too, a devout widow, has these words practically tattooed on her heart. Read them here.

So sure are these two, that they never lose hope, not even when they are old and wrinkly. At the very end of their days, their faithfulness is rewarded, and as Mary and Joseph bring their child for the birth rituals of their ancient faith, these faithful ancients are present too. They see the light of the world, the saviour; they hold him in their arms and speak blessings over him. Simeon bursts into song. Life has been tough for the faithful, their world is in turmoil and darkness seems to cloud everything, but now the light has come into the world, and will be a light for everyone.

Luke is the only one of the gospel writers to record this event. Luke is keen to show how Jesus is one of them, that he belongs to Israel, he is Jewish through and through, from his parentage and lineage, down to the rituals that identify him as being right with God. And yet, this very Jewish Israelite, born to be king of the Jews, has come to bring light not just to God’s people but to everyone, including the Gentiles.

This meeting between ancients and newborn takes place in the outer courtyard, not the inner sanctum. This is the courtyard where everyone can come and worship, where everyone is welcome, and it is here that the light of the world is revealed. Read it here.

So Simeon takes the child in his arms and is showered in his holy light.  What about us? Often we find ourselves thinking that it was easier to be faithful back then, so many fewer distractions, a life that was so much simpler, and God was quite literally in their presence. But it was dark back then, many had forgotten God, been distracted by the shadows that Roman occupation had covered their land in and given up all hope. Even as Jesus walked amongst them they were blinkered from seeing the true light.

Perhaps we are in a similar position now? The shadows seem so much stronger than the light. We walk in doubt, not hope. Our country, our world, seems to be in such a Godless mess, and yet, just like Simeon, we are called to carry the hope, to be faithful, to be bearers of light for another generation.

Simeon’s song begins, ‘now let your servant depart in peace’ Simeon recognises that his job is done, he is being dismissed, for he has carried the hope for his generation, and now the light is here. Will we also be able to say those words when the time comes? Will we choose light over shadow? Will will be bearers of hope for a struggling generation?

Summer is icumen….

We shall sing this as the plough is carried into church. We will look for the sun that is beginning to grow in strength. We will look for the light and not cower in the shadows.

Homeward Bound

The Exile is over. Or at least it is for some of the Israelites, Nehemiah has been given permission to return with some of his people to rebuild the city and to rebuild their community as the people of God. Although it sounds like a time for celebration,

The people of Israel are suffering from poverty, bewilderment and low morale. The confidence and wealth of the days of David and Solomon are gone, never to return…Idolatry and immorality have weakened the people’s spiritual health and corrupted their society. They have been conquered and displaced for two generations. They have no king, no army and no empire.

Andrew Knowles

The people are home, and yet they are still, spirituality, in a state of exile. Ezra, a priest, knows that even before all the building work needs to be done, the foundations of faith need to be planted. And so he calls together God’s people, men and women together, and gives them a pep rally. Only he doesn’t. What he does is read through the book of the law of Moses. These are the first five books of what we call the Bible, and what Jews refer to as the Pentateuch. Ezra starts at the very beginning, he reads allowed the creation stories and he reads the first falls from grace, the first murders and thefts and rapes and other atrocities. He reads the stories of Joseph and how the Israelites came to be located in Egypt and how and why Egypt took them as slaves.

He reads God’s rescue story and the forty years of wondering through the wilderness until they finally get to settle in the promised land. He introduces them to their first priest Aaron, and to all the laws of Leviticus.The ones that create a society in which every seven years debts are forgiven and slaves are freed, as well the laws which restrict them from wearing mixed linen, and eating certain foods. They are given afresh the Ten Commandments. Read it here.

All these forgotten holy words are now remembered, as together with Nehemiah and the Levites who had not forgotten, God’s desires are interpreted and explained so that everyone can understand; and because it is now fresh to those returning from exile, who had not heard these stories in their lifetime, they are new and exciting, even the rules about mildew.

The new people of Jerusalem stand and listen for hours as these words are read, and then they weep. They weep because their parents and grandparents had allowed these laws to be forgotten, they weep because they had been breaking God’s own law for so many years because they just didn’t know, they weep tears of confession.

But this is not a day of mourning. This is a day of celebration. This is a day when God and God’s people are reunited, it is a fresh beginning, a re-birthing of a nation. This is a day for celebration.

Go your way, eat the fat and drink the sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepare, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

Nehemiah 8:10

Fast forward a few hundred years, and the new exile is also coming to an end. The people may think and hope that it is the occupation by Roman forces that the Messiah will bring, but Jesus has something else in mind.

Jesus has returned from the wilderness experience which followed his baptism, and is full of the Holy Spirit. He begins his teaching ministry, travelling through Galilee attending synagogue on the sabbath, and eventually makes it home. There he takes the opportunity to read from the Holy writings, which by now have extended beyond the first five books that the people of Nehemiah’s time had, and he reads from  the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Isaiah 61 as quoted in Luke 4

The people of Nehemiah’s time are told that the joy of the Lord is their strength, the people of Jesus’ time are told that it is the year of the Lord’s favour, I wonder what God is telling our nation today?

For Luke there is something very important about the timing. It is today, it is always today. God’s words do not belong to yesterday and his actions are not for some vague ‘some-time’,they belong to now. This is the day that the Lord has made, this day the joy of the Lord is our strength, this day belongs to the year of the Lord’s favour. This day is the day that we have been given. Read it here.

It may feel a broken day, a day in which we are suffering from spiritual poverty, bewilderment and low morale, but this is also the day in which Jesus announces release for the captives.

It is also important to consider where Jesus makes this announcement: in the synagogue, through the scriptures on the sabbath. Jesus is ushering in a new thing, but he is launching the new from the old.

Synagogue worship in itself was a gift of exile: the faithful few continued to meet together in lay led (without the aid of priests) discussion of the scriptures. From this came the Pharisees, so it wasn’t perfect, but it was a gift of God for that time, and one which remained an important focus for the faithful. So much so that Jesus sought out the synagogues to declare his true identity as the Messiah.

So what about now? Even more hundreds of years have gone by. Many Christians feel in a place of exile even within their own homes.The word of God has been lost for several generations now as the word of God is no longer heard in empty pews, and no longer shared with our children. Just as with the people of Nehemiah’s time, the old stories have been abandoned to the extent that whoever now discovers them does so afresh, and they are new and exciting. Each day that these stories are shared anew is a day of celebration.

But there is more for our generation. The third reading we are given this Sunday is from St Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth where they, and through it we, are reminded to be a united body in Christ.

In Nehemiah’s day, orders were given that the celebrations were to be shared and that ‘portions’ were to be sent out for those without, so that everyone could be included. Jesus chose to speak this declaration about himself from Isaiah at the weekly gathering where all the faithful would be together, and St Paul reminds us that without each other we are not complete. Read it here.

Even in these spiritually difficult times, times as difficult as they were for the Israelites of Nehemiah’s day, the Jews of Jesus’ day, and even the first, persecuted, Christians at Corinth, it is important for us to love and honour each other, to keep meeting together, and to keep being reminded that the joy of the Lord is our strength.

Blushing Brides

I love a good wedding. I love conducting weddings and I love being a guest at a wedding even more, for then I get to wear a hat! Last year I was a guest at a family wedding and I had a delightful hat to wear, made by a former bride whose marriage I had conducted a few years back. In all modesty, I looked stunning, but nothing in comparison with my cousin whose wedding it was. My cousin glowed with delight and joy and love. The love of her groom and her family and her guests; and the joy of a new start. No matter how old or young the bride or groom, no matter whether they are virgin brides or second time round brides, each wedding opens up such wonderful opportunities for new beginnings.

At this wedding, in which the bride and groom glowed, and their bestman dog behaved honourably, the vicar spoke using the passage from John’s gospel in which Jesus himself is a

guest at a wedding: The wedding at Cana. One of the most well known of the miracles for it is here that Jesus performed his first miracle, turning water into wine. Read it here.

And I remember the vicar pointing out that it was Mary, Jesus’ mother, who issued the instructions on how the wedding party was to be saved, and how important it was to always do as your mother tells you. I also remember him talking about transformation.

When Jesus got involved the lowly washing water was transformed into wine, and not just any old wine, but the best wine: full in body, rich in flavour, smooth to the pallet and with no nasty hangover inducing chemicals. Jesus transforms water into wine, a party into a  celebration, and an ordinary wedding (if there is such a thing)into a heavenly banquet. This is who Jesus is. John speaks of it as a sign, and points out that this moment was a turning point for the disciples who now believed in him.

It is also the fulfilment of a promise. Through the words of Isaiah the prophet, God gets down on one knee and proposes to Israel. Israel is in Exile, remember, but she has not been abandoned.  The Israelites will not only be rescued from their foes, but will be treated as God’s own bride

as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your Gd rejoice over you.

Isaiah 62:5

Israel is described as a crown of beauty, a royal diadem, ‘My Delight is in Her’. Read it here.

The Israel of Isaiah is the Jerusalem of John, but what of God’s people now? It has been a difficult and painful week for the people of Britain. We are not a united kingdom, and the whole Brexit debacle makes us look more like a marriage heading for divorce. Perhaps we are a country in exile, lost of purpose and meaning and not knowing which way to turn next. Have we placed our hope in things of little or no value rather than our heavenly bridegroom, have we been tempted to look elsewhere and are now realising the cost?

It is never too late. We may have mistaken washing water for wine, but Jesus can still transform the most broken and heartbreaking of circumstances, if we invite him into the party.

As individuals, as churches, as a nation, it isn’t too late to call out to Jesus for transformation. It isn’t too late to seek forgiveness for pride, anger, false promises and self justification.  It isn’t too late to humble ourselves before our bridegroom, and it isn’t too late for us to discover or rediscover, our purpose in Christ.

Precious in my sight.

Isaiah, one of the ancient prophets, spoke these words over God’s people;

You are precious in my sight and honoured, and I love you.

Isaiah 43: 4

God’s people are in exile. The Babylonians have captured Israel and many have been deported to Babylon away from their beloved home. It is Isaiah’s job to speak God’s words of assurance to them. God’s people may have been defeated, but God has not. God’s people may be in exile, but not because of Babylon’s superiority, but because of their inferiority. God is still in control, and this enforced exile is actually God disciplining them as a tough-loving parent would do.

Read it here.

God has never stopped loving his people, they are precious in his sight and he speaks these words of love over them as he prepares to end the punishment and bring his people home. God and his people will be united once more.

Fast forward four hundred years or so and these words can be heard once more.

Jesus is baptised by his cousin John in the river Jordan. Luke skims over John’s involvement and focuses on what happens next. Early Christians struggled with the lowliness of Christ,the Messiah, being plunged into the murky waters of the Jordan, so embellished the story with bright lights, fire on the water, and a voice proclaiming Jesus’ divinity. None of these revelatory moments can be found in any of the gospels, except a voice from heaven, perhaps the voice.

Luke’s account is very low key. Attention moves quite swiftly away from John, the one who baptises Jesus, and on to the opening of the heavens.

Read it here.

The words spoken from heaven are powerful. Affirming words any child longs to hear from their parent, but also words which would have had a resonance to those bystanders who had also come to be baptised, those bystanders who had come to be prepared for the coming of the kingdom, who knew their scriptures and would have heard the words from Isaiah, and just like their forefathers would have found in them comfort and hope.

For in a sense, Israel was also in exile. Jerusalem had been conquered by Rome, and the religious leaders seemed to be little more than pious puppets; but now, here was one who was beloved of God, who was having those same words spoken over him as Isaiah had spoken over the Israelites before them, as God was bringing an end to exile.

Was God now stepping in to bring an end to Roman occupation and giving them their home back? Or perhaps even more?

These words are not coming from a prophet; John had spoken and called them to repentance and pointed them towards the one to come, but these are not his words. These words are coming straight from heaven.

The first thing that happens after Jesus is baptised is that the heavens are opened. The barrier between God and people is being broken down already. In a revelatory epiphany, Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit and affirmed by God the Father. The Holy Trinity is present for all to see, and hear, but more than that is the promise that has echoed down through the ages of God’s presence amongst his people coming to fruition at last.

As the gospel story continues to unfold we will see the opening of the heavens become wider, and all who call on the name of Jesus find themselves enveloped in this promise of hope. As we read on into the book of Acts and the stories of the first Christians who also found themselves in exile (due to persecution) we see the heavens continue to remain open to all those whose hearts are also open; and as people respond to the words and actions of Jesus through his disciples and followers, we witness the holy spirit descend upon them too.

Philip found himself in the place of his enemies, but with an awareness of the heavens being opened for everyone, he spoke God’s love over them, until they were able to believe that they too are precious in God’s sight.

Read it here.

Will we who have been baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, keep our hearts open to heaven, or will we find them both closed over? Will we believe in the words spoken over us that we are God’s precious children? Will we receive in our baptisms not just the power of God’s redemption through Jesus, but the call to speak the Holy Spirit’s message of comfort and hope for those who are still, for whatever reason, in a place of exile?

 

Epiphany: the Boy who would be King.

There is a culinary tradition of baking an enriched bread, lightly spiced and hiding a nut or porcelain representation of the Christchild. This loaf is served at breakfast on the feast of Epiphany, not just as a 12th day of Christmas treat before the decorations come down and life begins to return to normal, but also as a way of engaging with the majesty of the day: whoever finds the hidden nut is king (or queen) for the day.

There are many kings in the Epiphany story.

Perhaps the most obvious ones are ‘we three kings’, but who actually are they, and what are they doing in the Christmas story?

Well firstly, they aren’t part of the Christmas story. The Epiphany actually takes place a couple of years after Jesus’ birth. We don’t know why the Holy Family are still living in Bethlehem, but we do know that the baby is now a child. The travellers from the east only set out upon seeing the star which appeared at his birth, and without modern forms of transport, they took their time to travel. When Herod issues his murderous orders, he commands all boys under the age of 2 to be slaughtered, not new-borns.

Secondly, there weren’t three of them. Well there might have been, but then again there might not. Matthew, the only gospel writer to include the Epiphany, doesn’t number them at all – only the gifts are numbered, and there are three different gifts.  The gifts are named, gold, frankincense and myrrh, but the kings aren’t. Even though we sing about Melchior, king of Persia, Gaspar, king of India and Balthasar king of Arabia, these names were late additions to our ‘Christmas’ story and not mentioned in the gospels at all.

And they weren’t kings. The biblical term is Magi, from the Greek magoi, which is used in Acts to refer to magicians. It could, however, be a reference to the Magians, a Persian priestly caste, possibly Zoroastrian. A third possibility and one which seems to have scholarly consensus is that they were stargazers, or more specifically, astrologers who found meaning in the stars: middle eastern Russell Grants in triplicate? Whoever they were, they weren’t Israelites. These visitors were outsiders who were seeking the truth in the stars, and in doing so, fulfilling prophecies.

Isaiah predicted many years before Jesus’ birth that,

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.

They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Isaiah 60:6

And here they are, although Matthew doesn’t mention any camels.

So if these exotic, prophecy fulfilling visitors weren’t kings, where are they hiding?

Well ,Herod is definitely a king; Matthew opens the chapter with the words,

In the time of King Herod….

Matthew 2:1

but who was Herod?

Herod was a client king of Rome, a former governor or Galilee who had gained the favour of Octavian and Mark Anthony, and with whose support was installed as the King of Judea. Herod was not born to be king, but found favour in a violent society, and kingship inferred upon him. His reign was a long and prosperous one, and resulted in many large building projects which kept the economy afloat and his subjects in employment (even if the building was funded by taxes they paid). Herod the Great could be said to be a successful king, he reigned for 33 years after all, however it cost much. Death was always on the horizon: his brother had committed suicide when he had been captured years earlier, and when Herod discovered his wife had cheated on him, had her killed, along with two of their sons he suspected of having mixed loyalties. Later his eldest son Antipater was added to the list of casualties.

With this background to monarchy, Herod’s fear of a king whose birth had been prophesied in the scriptures and the stars is understandable. Herod was king only as long as he was in favour. This new ‘king’ was a dangerous threat, and Herod knew how to deal with threats. So yes, Herod is king, but only as long as he can keep favour and power.

Of course the real king is the least likely character in the story. The true king has no power, no wealth or status, and is completely passive in the telling of the story. The child king receives guests and gifts, and will be swept up by his family and taken to safety when the story gets dangerous.

The king is hiding, not in the exotic gifts and foreign star gazers; not in the palace or even in favour with the Roman empire. The true king is not hiding in wealth or power.

The true king can be found in the heart and in the home and in all the hidden places. The true king can be found in the plight of the fatherless child, the teenage mother, the homeless, the refugee and those sheltering from abuse and war. The true king can be found wherever room is made for the unexpected guest, whenever time is given from busy schedules to look to the stars, whenever hope is placed in prophesies and promises, and humility enables us to stop and bow the knee.

It’s Oh So Quiet (shhhh, shhhh!).

It’s going to be a bit quiet here at Nothing Like a Dane for the next 3 months, and this why:

 

Study Leave or Leaving the Study?

I have been trying to declutter my study! The lifestyle of a vicar seems to be to a constant state of bouncing between one appointment and another with the occasional 30minutes of stillness to contemplate Sunday’s sermon. The thing is, I’m not a naturally tidy person, and over the last 9 years too many things have been placed down ‘for now’ until I have time to tidy them away properly.

Well now is the time for I have been granted a period of Study Leave by the bishop. Study Leave, formerly known as a Sabbatical, is a period of three months when clergy are released from their normal duties so that they can focus whole heartedly on an area of spiritual interest. My area of study is to be the spirituality of food and I hope to create a designated blog, Facebook page, Instagram account and twitter ID under the name of ‘Soul Food’. The bishop is hoping that I am also able to produce something that can be published in the traditional style, so let’s see!

The term ‘Sabbatical’ comes from the same stem as ‘Sabbath’ so you won’t be surprised to note that there is an element of rest and restoration. Often clergy simply disappear for three months, experiencing worship in a different culture perhaps, however, as a mum of children at school that just won’t be possible.  If you do see me round and about you will be seeing Vanessa the mum and not Vanessa the vicar.

We are also encouraged to take off one of the major festivals, and as my husband was born on Christmas day, it seems obvious to take this once in a ministry opportunity to disappear for Christmas and, for once, allow him to be fully spoiled on his birthday.

I will miss you, and all the special services that take place between now and the end of the year, but I am also really excited to be able to spend some time at home in my kitchen doing three of the things I love the most: reading, writing and baking. Spending time with my family, especially at weekends and over the Christmas holidays, will also be a real blessing for me (and hopefully them too).

So for the next three months, if you need a vicar Peter and Matthew will be on hand. My email account and telephone number will not be monitored during this period.

I wish you a wonderful Harvest and Christmas and look forward to catching up with you all in the New Year,

God bless,

Vanessa

Trinity 16: Getting to Know You

On the way Jesus asks his disciples the most important question, the one that we all need to face at some time, if not in life, then certainly in death – who is Jesus?

The disciples have spent the last couple of years getting to know Jesus, treading in his footsteps and bathing in the dust kicked up by his sandals. They have witnessed the most amazing miracles, seen people healed and restored and even brought back to life. Thousands have been fed, and others have received hospitality from Jesus in ways no other religious leader would have offered. They have sat at his feet and listened to him bringing alive the Kingdom of God, they have witnessed him challenge those in authority in such a way that has left them speechless. They have walked with him, and camped with him, laughed and cried with him, and now they come to a turning point.

Sometimes when I read of Jesus and the disciples travelling, I imagine Jesus forging ahead whilst the disciples traipse behind trying to makes sense of what has just happened. Other times the reverse, the disciples bickering with each other whilst Jesus lingers behind listening in. Today I imagine Jesus walking alongside different people at different times in the journey. And as on any good hike or ramble, when time slows down and the rhythm of footsteps helps focus the mind, conversations take on a deeper meaning. This isn’t just a journey from A-B, but a pilgrimage.

As Jesus slowly weaves between each of the disciples, he asks each of them the same question. The mission is changing shape and energy, Jesus knows that they are now heading towards Jerusalem and he wants to know if the disciples are truly with him. He knows each of them, their strengths and weaknesses, what makes them laugh or cry. Jesus knows what made each of them give up their day jobs to follow him, he knows their hopes and dreams, their doubts and fears; but do they know him?

If they don’t know him, then what is to come is going to be even harder. And if they haven’t worked out who he truly is, then will anyone else?

Who do people say that I am?

That’s an easy question to answer – all sorts of rumours are going around, John the Baptist, Elijah, another of the prophets of yore – all dead.

But who do you say that I am?

Now that’s a trickier question .

If Jesus is just another Rabbi, there are plenty more to follow if things go wrong. If he is a prophet, well they come and go. If he is just a good man, a friend, a brother, well, hasn’t this been fun. If Jesus is more than that, if he is ‘the one’ then life has changed for good, and perhaps for worse too.

Just like a marriage begins with courtship, ‘walking out’ with each other, ‘getting to know all about you’, there comes a point when a decision has to be made: is this the one? If this is the one then life is about to change forever, for better for worse, in sickness and in health…. If not, then it’s game over. Time to move on.

Have the disciples go to the point where they know Jesus so well that they are ready to commit everything to him, that they are unable to imagine their lives without him?

Who do you say that I am?

Peter is the one who knows, and is willing to make a stand and speak it out loud:

You are the Messiah.

So Jesus stops the journey. They sit and listen in to Jesus as he explains what it means to be ‘married’ to him. There is no fairy tale wedding, instead there is suffering and rejection and torture to the point of death, and there is nothing they will be able to do to stop it. Are they ready for this? Others are crowded around, are they too ready to follow? Are they ready to ‘pick up their cross’ whatever that might mean? Following Jesus isn’t all about free meals and signs and wonders, it is about being willing to lose your life, to give up your independence for the greater good – the good of the kingdom of God. Are they ready to do that? Are they willing to forsake all others, including themselves, for the love of God? Until death us do part?

There is, however, a ‘happy ever after’: Jesus will be killed, but life will be triumphant. Three days after his murder, his burial, Jesus will rise, and those who give of their life, whether through martyrdom or sacrificial living, will find eternal life with Jesus.

It’s a choice each of us has to face. Peter understood, and then very quickly misunderstood: there are often misunderstandings in a marriage, but commitment and hope and of course love, can enable a couple to move on from them and into a deeper level of trust. We have to decide just who Jesus is. We have to decide why we come to church, and then choose how to live our our lives according to the decisions we have made. We can put off making a commitment for years and years and years, and never know the joy or the celebration of being part of something so much more than just the sum of 1+1. We can hide from the truths that whisper into our hearts and urge us to take that next step of faith, for now, for the whole of our lives, but we cannot hide from it in death.

Jesus walks beside us along the way of our lives, and he asks us, ‘Who am I?’, are you ready to answer him, ‘You are the one.’

Something to do:

  • Light a candle and read the gospel passage out loud, read it here,
  • Go for a walk with friends, stop to read the passage at a suitable point, then discuss what it means to you as you continue your journey.
  • Play an icebreaker game to get to know friends better – for ideas, click here.

Something to watch:

Something to think about:

  • What is the most surprising thing about yourself – is there something  about you that would completely surprise people who think they know you?
  • Try describing yourself (and others) in just a few words.
  • Try describing Jesus in just a few words.
  • Why do you think the disciples spoke about other peoples perceptions of Jesus, but were reluctant to share their own?
  • What was it about Peter that enabled him to speak out?
  • Are there times, when, like Peter, you have been surprised at insights you have been given?
  • Is there a sense that Peter has ‘made it’ when he makes his messianic statement?
  • Why do you think Peter fell so quickly from grace?
  • What does it mean to ‘take up your cross’, or to ‘lose your life’ for the sake of the gospel?
  • How can we be a people more willing to abandon our sense of independence?

Something to pray:

Redeemer Christ,

we come to acknowledge you again as our Lord and Saviour; to declare our faith in you as the one who sets us free, delivering us from all that holds us captive and denies us life.

Yet we come also knowing how easily we turn serving you into serving self, being happy enough to receive but reluctant to give, ready to profess allegiance when t suits us but unwilling to take up our cross should following [rove costly.

Equip us, then to honour you not just with protestations of loyalty but above all with lives committed to your kingdom and lived in obedience to your will.

In your name we pray, Amen.                                                                   Nick Fawcett

Trinity 15: Unclean, unclean?

This week I celebrated communion in the homes of some of our more elderly and frail members. As we read through the gospel passage with one of our members I was reminded of a story she had shared with me previously. This woman in her 90s with white candyfloss hair was, and still is, a formidable woman. A young Dutch nurse, involved in the Resistance during the war she met her ‘Tommy’ husband. They married bringing her to England, where she worked with her husband’s family in setting up a printing business as well as raising a family of four. As their children became older Jimmy entered their lives. Jimmy was a man with neither sight nor hearing and was often left to his own devices, trapped in his own world, except for these visits to her home. Her training as a nurse and her determined nature sought the best for him, and discovering that he had been confirmed as a teenager, arranged with the vicar of the time for Jimmy to receive communion. The day came and he dressed in his best suit, and they went to church. The vicar began the prayers and she prayed that Jimmy would understand what was happening. She had prayed for a sign and suddenly he was filled with a sense of urgency and came forward to the communion rail, the communion prayer was shortened and Jimmy laid out his hands, one on top of the other, in the shape of a cross, with basic signs for bread and wine, Jimmy understood and received Christ.

Mark places the stories of the unclean Gentiles, a mother of a demonised daughter and a man who could neither hear nor speak, next to each other; he also places them after the incident in which the Pharisees criticise the disciples for  not washing properly before eating (read about it here). In that previous passage Jesus declared all foods clean, here Mark is indicating that to Jesus all people are clean.

The Syrophoenician woman is ‘unclean’ due to her race, faith and gender.

The woman was on to a losing streak before she even opened her mouth, she was after all a woman. A woman had no place in speaking to a man! Especially not a respected man. Yet she does. She is a woman with no name, no status, no voice, and yet she speaks up. She speaks against the criticism and derogatory terms flung at her from the one she came to for help, but she will not be silenced. In breaking through the cultural silence that was imposed upon her she finds healing for her daughter and affirmation from God.

At first this passage is shocking. We are surprised to hear Jesus speak so callously, so heartlessly. As preachers we try to soften the blow, suggesting that Jesus may have had a twinkle in his eye, may have been using this moment to teach the disciples, or us, about what is clean and unclean.

The deaf mute didn’t have a voice either. His silence was physical rather than cultural, though, and he had friends to speak up for him, friends who begged Jesus to restore his sight and healing. And he does so, he takes him to a private space and speaks that unpronounceable word and the man can speak and also hear once more – but with a warning to keep quiet, not to tell anyone. Having just given the man a voice he silences him.

We are shocked at this reading, the way that Jesus breaks out from his mould of compassion and has to be pressurised into granting healing to these desperate people. We are shocked because we want Jesus to be different, because Jesus is different. Jesus was there at creation when man and woman were created equally, when colours of every hue were spun into flowers and animals and even humans. But Jesus is also human. It is his day off, he is tired and his humanity breaks through as it conforms and almost condones cultural behaviour of the day.

Perhaps we are also shocked because despite these stories being over 2000 years old, people are still being silenced for their colour, gender, sexuality, wealth…

Despite Pride marches taking place across the summer, gay and trans people still find themselves prejudiced against, and limited in their options and freedoms in way that others aren’t. The Windrush scandal in the UK and the caged children in the USA reveal how race can be used against human dignity. The #MeToo campaign has released voices to speak of abuse suffered in silence because of fear of being alienated for speaking out. And just as Jesus was surprisingly unwelcoming of those who are marginalised, his church still struggles with a love and respect which is inclusive.

But there is hope here. Jesus, despite his kneejerk responses, does listen to the woman and to the deaf mute’s friends. He hears their pleas and allows compassion to rule his heart and he brings healing and hope, ahead of the planned excursion into Gentile territory. Healing, hope, and a voice to those previously oppressed. Perhaps this should  be our prayer too, that the church will listen with hearts of compassion allowing the ‘unclean’ to be given a voice and a place of acceptance.

Something to do:

Light a candle and listen to the following:

Read through the two gospel stories – the Syrophoenician Woman and the healing of the deaf mute – taking each separately, what stands out to you?

Something to think about:

  • Is there a time when you have been ‘lost for words’?
  • Why do you think it was important for the woman to be heard by Jesus?
  • Are there times when we don’t listen to people properly?
  • How can we engage better?
  • Why was it important for the deaf mute’s friends to speak out for him?
  • Are there people we need to speak out for?
  • What prevents us from doing so?
  • What silences us?

Some background reading:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-40408609                LGBT+ bullying in schools

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43808007                             Windrush

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-44518942   Child immigrants in USA

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-45381687   and   https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-41633857         #MeToo

 

 

 

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