All posts by David Brain

Sunday 1st August

Hebrews chapters 11 & opening of 12

 Francis Drake, that old adventurer who was perhaps more of a pirate than an admiral, nevertheless wrote a famous prayer which sums up what I want to say:

Lord God, when you call your servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same, until it be thoroughly finished, which yields the true glory; through him who, for the finishing of your work, laid down his life for us, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

In the ancient world, in both Greek and Roman cultures, sport meant athletics and athletics was very important with some high-profile games, chief of which were the Olympics. It was even then the greatest show on earth. Whether Paul as a young man was a competitive athlete we shall never know. But he uses the image of athletic training knowing that all his readers and hearers will understand what he means. For every few minutes in the limelight there are many, many long hours of routine training. To do well you need determination and practice. It’s not enough to begin, as Francis Drake says, you need to persevere and finish.
This is the first Olympic lesson for us. Practice.

As Paul says, Christian living doesn’t just happen; you have to work at it. Jesus makes this clear. How many times do you forgive – till you lose count says Jesus. What about loving your friends and family – love your enemies too. What about saving your money – just don’t expect it to provide happiness, he says; better to give it away. What about adultery – don’t even fantasise he says. What about observing the Sabbath – always look out for some good you can do whatever day it is. And so on. All this requires practice. There’s a phrase ‘practising Christian’ which should mean much more than someone who goes to church on a Sunday. Practice may not make perfect but it certainly necessary to sustain a life of faith and hope and love.

The image of Olympic champions pounding away out of the limelight, like Adam Peaty at the baths every morning before the rest of us are awake, is a powerful and effective one. If we practise our Christianity we do become better at it, thank God. But if we are Sunday-only Christians we shall always struggle and doubt and worry. So let’s all be practising Christians.

The second lesson of the Olympics is that all these champions are part of teams – even the most solitary ones. Not for nothing has the snappy title Team GB caught on. There is so much back-up, coaching and sheer encouragement, without which there would be no medal performances. Christianity is a team effort. Not only do we need one another in a local fellowship to keep us up to speed, we need to honour those who carried the baton before us. We can feel ourselves to be part of God’s great unfolding story, climaxing in Jesus, and rolling on till now. Most believers can usually point to two or three individuals who showed them, either in words or by example, what being a Christian meant.

So we come to the core of this message: we are looking to Jesus. As our reading puts it: Jesus is the one on whom our faith depends from start to finish. Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, alpha and omega; as the hymn says, ‘Christ is the path and Christ the prize’. This is a double truth, just as Jesus is both one of us in our human nature and the one who reveals God to us when we worship him. It is both the faith of Jesus and our faith in Jesus which sustains us in our lap of the track.
Through him we learn both our Olympic lessons: we are given the perseverance as disciples to practise our Christian life, and we are given each other like a team for encouragement and support.

Thanks be to God.

(Read through Drake’s prayer again and make it your own.)

Revd Peter Brain

Sunday 25th July

2 Sam 11:1-15 / John 19: 1-5

King David was Israel’s greatest King and came to be portrayed as the ‘ideal’ monarch. The Gospels of Matthew & Luke refer to Jesus as being descended from David and locate Bethlehem, the birthplace of David, as also the birthplace of Jesus. Today, Jews pray daily for the coming of the “Messiah, son of David.”

In  the OT book of 2 Samuel chapter 11 and verses 1-15  we see another side of this ‘ideal’ King.  A man with feet of clay — prone, as are all human beings, to weakness. It raises the question about what it means to be human.

We often make a distinction between being human acting humanely. What does it mean to be human?  It’s a simple question, but unwraps a complex issue. It’s a question that’s  been asked for thousands of years. Priests and poets, philosophers and politicians, scientists and artists have all sought to answer this ultimate puzzle about human nature but  have never really got to the bottom of this tantalising question.

When we make mistakes and get things wrong; when we misjudge things incorrectly; when we behave badly and act out of self- interest;  whenever we fail to give of  our best, we justify ourselves by saying “I’m only human”, as if being human is to be flawed. Thankfully, there is another side to human nature. If we think of what it means to ‘act humanely’ we often see superb examples of this. Indeed, we are aware of human weakness and shortcoming because we see the other side, that there is also something excellent and impressive about being human.

Being Human is the title of a book by Roman Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. The book ends with a brief but profound meditation on the person of Christ which Rowan Williams invites us to consider,

‘ Our humanity ‘   Writes Williams. ‘in all its variety, in all its vulnerability, has been taken into the heart of the divine life’. By which I think he means that humanity, warts and all, is embraced by the love of God. Because of that acceptance of our humanity we discover the freedom  to change.

The Gospel’s portray Jesus as human, the human being par excellence!   A man who lived totally for God, whose belief in God determined the course of his whole life; a man who permitted God to so control his life that the presence of God became intimately real in the the whole of his life. Indeed, it became impossible to distinguish the life of Jesus from God and vice Vera. Even at his most wretched,

indeed in his most human vulnerability,  his followers the Gospels and the Church throughout the ages, have perceived God’s eternal presence.

Take that passage from the 19th.chapter of St. John’s Gospel, verses 1-5 when Pilate brings Jesus before the people. Jesus had been  arrested and handed over to Pilate. In Pilate’s company he is  ruthlessly beaten.  .The next time Jesus is  seen by the crowd, he is dressed in a purple robe and wears a crown of thorns. He is  a pathetic figure – beaten, bruised and bleeding. “Here is the man” said Pilate.

Pilates  words are difficult to translate. It is  as if he is  saying “Look at this!”  Is this pathetic spectacle of humanity really worth all this  trouble? He hoped the crowd would be satisfied and disperse.

Pilate hits the truth accidentally. Jesus in his complete humiliation, is set forth as the ‘heavenly man’. The words  “Here is  the man”  is charged with sarcasm.  It is a  phrase that cannot be accurately translated. But across the centuries we have come to perceive another meaning. Here, in this life of perfect obedience and love;  here in this courage that bears the worst that hate can do  is nevertheless serenity at its best; here in this love which is unquenched and undiminished – even by the desertion of friends is,  according to the Apostle   a paradox. This pathetic human being you see before you is indeed ‘The Word made flesh’

In this defeated and broken human being we see humanity fulfilling its true destiny and revealed  as far superior to any other circumstance. Here we see humanity undefeated by the cruelty of human hatred, and power. Here we see this defeated human being – as the Letter to the Hebrews states: –

     is one who for a little while was made lower than the angels,
     now crowned with glory and honour,
     because of the suffering of death,   (Hebrews  2:8- 9)

In those events we see the birth of a  new humanity! Even In human weakness and depravation we see the grace of God emerging and rising as surely as the morning sun emerges to disperse the darkness and usher in a new day.

What it means to be human, really human, is attained through relationship with God rather than through our struggle to understand human nature or  through our feeble efforts to justify our actions and behaviour. Existing in that relationship is what determines what we are and how we live and fulfil  our true nature!

Prayer

Holy God,  we acknowledge you, the Creator of all life;
far beyond our grasp,
mysterious, profound, eternal
yet so accessible and hospitable to all who need you,
genuinely trust you and turn to you .

We marvel at your astonishing grace, the unsparing love with which you constantly embrace us.
You come to us as the vital breath which enables us to live as your people.
In Jesus we glimpse something of your tender, healing presence, and in him we share that blessed togetherness with you, with one another and with those who have died.
In him we begin the glorious process of being transformed into your image, enabled to faithfully demonstrate the humanity into which we are born.

Help us to have confidence in you and to open ourselves to your transforming love.
Through Jesus Christ.        Amen.

Revd  Michael Diffey

 

 

 

Sunday 18th July

Judges 11: 29-40

In the 11th chapter of the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament we find a sort of inventory of the great heroes of the faith who are worthy of remembrance and who are an inspiration for all God’s people for all time. Included in the chapter there is a verse which goes as follows: ‘Time is too short for me to tell stories of Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets. Through faith they overthrew kingdoms, established justice, saw God’s promises fulfilled.’ How interesting that the name of Jephthah is included there. I wonder what that says about the writer. I wonder what it says that Jephthah is included in this list and not his daughter whose name we never are told. Surely she is the one to be remembered while Jephthah is best forgotten. The truth is that rather than being a paradigm of faith this man is a fool – a faithless and destructive fool.

So what do we know about Jephthah? The bible tells us that he was the son of a prostitute and an unnamed father and that as a result he was despised and treated as an outcast. In other words, he suffered for the sins of his mother. We are also told that Jephthah had a reputation as something of a hard man, so he’d been leant on to lead Israel’s army against the Ammonites, the current military threat to God’s people. And Jephthah had agreed and evidently the Lord endorsed the choice of Jephthah for we read that ‘the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.’ Now, that’s a great start. If you’re going to be the commander of the Lord’s army it’s a huge advantage if you have the Spirit of the Lord to fight your battles. But why wasn’t the Spirit of the Lord enough for Jephthah? Why did he make this stupid, foolish bargain with God that if God gave him victory he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of the door of his house on his return?

I want to probe Jephthah a little for if we scratch the surface we find that we are dealing here with more than just random folly. We are dealing with more than just a thoughtless and impulsive man. I would suggest to you that there are other forces at work in this story, other powers and influences that are at work in Jephthah and that lead him to act as he does. So, for example, first off, there is the power of religion that is in play in this story – disastrous, distorted, dysfunctional religion that brings destruction in its wake. I mean, who is this God that Jephthah needs to bargain with? Who is this God who has to be cajoled with the prospect of a sacrifice in order to get him to make a deal? This is not the God of Israel! The God of Israel cannot be propositioned this way. The God of Israel is not susceptible to bargains and bribes and bartering. In fact, in a sense Jephthah has already lost the battle with the Ammonites by making this kind of bargain because in doing so he is succumbing to the Ammonite gods and their ways, including their lust for human sacrifice. So Jephthah’s daughter – his poor, nameless, only daughter – is not just the victim of her father’s stupidity. She is the victim of distorted, deathly religion, and God knows we are familiar enough with that in human history.

But then, of course, the power of war is also at work in the story. ‘So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord gave them into his hands. He inflicted a massive defeat on them…’ and so on. What we have there is one more description of one more war, one more despatch from the front, one more tedious account of slaughter and suffering. And so Jephthah’s daughter – his poor, nameless only daughter – is the victim of war, the power of war, what we now call ‘collateral damage’. And the drums of war are beating as loud as ever in our world this morning.

But there is another power at work here. There is too the power of patriarchy, the power of a world made in the image of man. It’s the world that remembers the name of Jephthah the fool, but not his courageous, dignified daughter. This passage reeks of Jephthah’s contempt for women. He must know that there is a tradition in Israel that when the men come home from war the women come out to celebrate with their tambourines and their dancing. Centuries before when Israel passed through the Red Sea Moses’ sister Miriam took up her tambourine and danced and the women followed her. What value does Jephthah put upon women that he makes his reckless vow to sacrifice whoever he sees first – and is his only regret that the victim is his daughter, rather than some other dispensable female? And get this: when Jephthah realises what has happened and who the victim must be, what does he say? What remorse does he show? Listen again to verse 35: ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You have brought great trouble to me!’ It is as though he thinks this mess is his daughter’s fault for coming out to greet her father.

This, then, is Jephthah’s daughter – his poor, nameless, only daughter – the victim, yes, of a foolish father, but a victim of far more, of the powers of religion and of war and of patriarchy. Yet the beautiful thing, the real heart of this story, is that Jephthah’s nameless daughter will not allow herself to be remembered simply as a victim. Given the tragedy of her situation, this woman will not lie down passively and submit. Given the hopelessness, given the cards stacked against her, her voice will be heard. Squeezed and constrained by events, she will create space for herself. Intimidated by the prospect of her life terminated, she will make time for herself. If she must die, then she will die on her terms. And so she goes to her father, and rather than bargain and manipulate as is his default mode, she puts her simple request: ‘spare me for two months, that I may roam the hills with my companions and mourn that I must die a virgin.’ And her father says, ‘go!’

There follows, surely, one of the most poignant scenes in all of Scripture: Jephthah’s daughter in the company of her companions, roaming the hills, a brief interlude before her inevitable, violent death. The image that comes to mind, inappropriately enough, is of a strange parody of a hen party. After all, instead of celebrating impending marriage this daughter mourns her eternal virginity; instead of rejoicing in the fulfilment of marriage – the only possible fulfilment for a woman in her day – she grieves that she will never be other than single and childless. Where nowadays hen parties are about a day or even weekend of indulgence, here the woman and her friends roam the hills and lament.

There is, however, more to this group of women than mourning and pain. In fact there is a wonderful ambiguity about them. Yes, of course there is such sadness and pathos in their gathering. As they come together they cannot but be mindful of those powers, those destructive forces that prey upon their lives. Their world is scarred by oppressive religion and war and patriarchy, as well as countless other powers that control and sap human life. And they gather with this daughter who is condemned to die. Yet that is not all for here, in this group, something hopeful is happening. Something different is taking place among them. This group represents a refusal to submit to these deathly powers on their terms. It represents defiance. For a start, among these women there is companionship. This daughter, we have been told, is an only daughter. She is used to solitude and isolation. She comes out alone with tambourine and dancing to greet her father. Yet now for these last two months of her life she has companionship, solidarity. She does not face her death alone. And note well – this little group, this non-hen party, is a male free zone. There’s not a man in sight. Here, for two glorious months, the spectre of patriarchy and sexism is banished. And here too war is distant and forgotten. And maybe it’s not stretching things to say that religion – Jephthah’s oppressive macho religion that strikes deals and drives bargains – no longer features among these women. And I doubt that those two months are all wailing and woe. This daughter and her companions are inhabiting a zone so gloriously free of deathly powers that I’m sure they found time to laugh and to sing and to dance and to tell their stories.

It has been suggested that this daughter is a type of Christ, one who suffers for the sins of the world, and indeed she is. But we also see in this woman – and her companions – an image of Christ’s body, the church. Here in the church, as with them, the reality of evil is acknowledged and its effect on our lives. Here we name the powers that oppress human life and ravage the world. Here we stand in solidarity with the grieving, the afflicted, with those facing death. We know how to mourn. We know how to lament. But here too these deathly powers are opposed and resisted. As the church we are called to be a liberated zone, a community of companionship over against the powers that stalk and kill. Whether it’s dysfunctional religion, or war, or patriarchy, or the power of mammon, or any of the other countless powers that prey upon us and that diminish and demean human life, we are called to join this daughter and her friends as they leave these things behind and roam the hills in solidarity.

The passage ends by saying there was a tradition in Israel that every year this daughter was commemorated for four days. Sadly, that does not happen anymore and it is her foolish father rather than she that is remembered as a hero of the faith. The best commemoration, the best memorial to this daughter, would be a church worthy of her and her companions.

Revd Sabrina Groeschel

Sunday 11th July

Genesis 28:10-19a

The man we encounter in this reading is a sad and a lonely figure. The passage places him at eventide, at a place that in retrospect he will call ‘Bethel’, which means ‘the house of God’. We read that ‘He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set’. And that twilight mood expresses not just this man’s surroundings but also the state of his soul. His name is Jacob and he is a key player in God’s plan for the world, but you would hardly know it. The name ‘Jacob’ means cheat or supplanter and in the previous chapters of this story he has been living up to his name, for Jacob is a man who makes sure he gets what he wants, irrespective of deceit and of the cost to anyone else. Looing back we find that he has hoodwinked his father and cheated his twin brother Esau who is enraged and has vowed to kill him. So Jacob has fled his home and is now on the run.

So there he is – alone, away from home, a man in flight from his past and in fear of his future, and there can hardly be a more lonely place to lay down your head for the night. It’s somehow appropriate that his pillow is a rock, for truly this is a hard place to which Jacob has come.

Then comes the dream, and we can surely understand why God has to speak to Jacob this way – how else could God possibly get through to him? We have no control at all over our dreams – they come to us from deep layers of our psyche and we cannot stave off the worlds that come to us in the dark depths of the night. But it’s precisely then, when we are passive and no longer in control, that God can come to us and address us. And that is true of Jacob. Jacob, who we know is a control freak must be incapacitated: out of it, for God to be able to speak to him.

So Jacob sleeps, his head on the rock, and Jacob dreams. And what does he see? He sees this ladder, linking heaven and earth and the angels of God ascending and descending upon it, and he hears God speaking words of promise and reassurance. Suddenly Jacob’s bed becomes holy ground and this desolate and lonely place is transfigured and it becomes Bethel, the house of God, and Jacob declares, ‘surely the Lord is in this place – and I did into know it’ . So how might this strange encounter address us today? What might it have to say to us?

Firstly, it tells us something about Jesus, pointing forward to him. After all, for Christians it is Jesus who links heaven and earth. For Christians Jesus is the ladder spanning heaven and earth and upon which God has descended and ascended. Indeed, Jesus actually drew on this very passage to describe himself. Near the beginning of his ministry, and using the title ‘Son of Man’ by which he referred to himself, he said to one of his followers, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ He saw himself as Jacob’s ladder. It’s interesting that in verse 13 of this passage we read of Jacob in that lonely place that ‘the Lord stood beside him’. So the assumption is that Jacob sees the Lord standing beside him, at the foot of the ladder. But Hebrew, the language in which this passage was originally written, is wonderfully fluid and imprecise and those words can equally well be read not as ‘the Lord stood beside him’ but as ‘the Lord stood above him’. So on that reading the Lord is at the top of the ladder. So which is it? Is God at the top or at the bottom?

Well, of course for Christians it is both. For Christians the eternal God sits enthroned high above the earth, exalted over all – but is also to be found incarnate, enfleshed, at the foot of the ladder, in Jesus. The ambiguity of the passage captures beautifully the mystery of a sovereign God who is above and beyond in the heights but who will be found with us, in Christ, in the depths. And Jacob declares on waking: ‘surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it’ for this, after all, was the last place that Jacob might expect to meet God, in some dark, unfamiliar territory. You could say, as many did, the same of Jesus of Nazareth, that he is the last place you might expect to meet God: in this Galilean peasant in some backwater of the Roman Empire. Here is the last place you might expect to encounter God, in a crucified criminal charged with sedition and heresy. Yet the verdict of Christians, looking at the life and death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, is that, indeed, ‘the Lord was in this place and we did not know it – but we know it now.’

So the passage tells us about Jesus, but it also tells us something about the Church. I’m intrigued that after this strange experience Jacob took the stone he had used for a pillow and set it up as a pillar and consecrated it with an offering of oil upon it. So it becomes a holy place, set apart for the presence of God and for traffic between heaven and earth. Of course God is everywhere and always close at hand, yet there are nevertheless special places that are associated with God’s presence and the worship of God’s people and which are set apart to be open to God, and where the Holy Spirit of God flies betwixt and between like the angels in the dream.

There is a beautiful old English word, ‘trysting’ which means meeting – especially between lovers – and a trysting place is an often secret place where lovers meet and which becomes special for that reason. Maybe some of you have such trysting places in your lives and memories, and perhaps they’re not as mysterious and romantic as Bethel. The Church hopefully is a trysting place. It’s an appointed place set apart for a lovers’ tryst between us and God and where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name the ladder is raised, and heaven is open and prayer and worship are offered and praises and blessings ascend descend and we sense that somehow, surely, the Lord is in this place. And we need such trysting places, where the veil between heaven and earth is torn open and earth lies exposed to heaven. Ours is a world, after all, that is turned in upon itself. It is a world that is battened down and closed to God, and it needs places where it is prised open and the roof pulled back and the angels come and go. It’s like opening a window on a closed and stuffy world and letting in the fresh air of heaven.

The story, then, speaks of Jesus, and of the Church, but it surely also addresses us individually. We began by thinking of Jacob’s life as being in a dark place as he settles down here for the night. He is haunted by guilt, for a start – by his conniving and his cheating and his treatment of others. It seems he is fearful of the threat of retribution. Maybe he feels he has lost touch with his purpose in life, his destiny: called as he is to carry forward great promises made by God to his grandfather Abraham. In many ways Jacob here is a broken man, isolated, cut off from God and from his family by his own folly. And yet it is in that twilight place where the sun is setting on his life that God comes to him in the depths of his soul, in the land of sleep where deep calls to deep, and God speaks words of reassurance, ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.’ And to his surprise Jacob finds himself uttering words of astonishment: ‘Surely, the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.’

I would dare to say that this is the testimony of Christians time and time again. Of course, as with Jacob, it’s always in retrospect. We often do not know it at the time. The experience might be one of fear or loneliness or abandonment. It may be one of unimaginable loss, or of hurt, or of deep regret, or of betrayal. It may be that painful place where we come face to face with our own stupidity, our own failure, the damage we do to ourselves and to others and the guilt that comes with it. In such dark places it’s hard to sleep. But there comes that time of awakening when we find ourselves saying, ‘surely, the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.’ And we call that place Bethel, the house of God. May Jacob’s experience be ours.

Revd Sabrina Groeschel

Sunday 4th July

I still smile when someone says that Australia was the only country colonised by people on the basis of their convictions.

As we remembered last year, those who founded the colonies on the east coast of America were indeed motivated by deep conviction; those pilgrims did not only go to escape persecution in Britain for their dissenting beliefs, but they went, like Abraham, seeking a city that has foundations whose architect and builder is God. And they had lost none of that spirit when, a hundred and fifty years later, they agreed that the basis of the independence would be a recognition of a calling from God to that famous threesome ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, three things that had been denied them by Britain.

Not for nothing are those denominations which are neither Catholic nor Anglican nor Orthodox called the Free Churches. I still feel that our denomination was wrong to call us the United Reformed Church – I felt that 50 years ago. It does sound disparaging of other traditions as disunited and unreformed – which some of them are of course. But we are free, free from papal or episcopal authority.

However, as our Bible readings demonstrate, being free is far from the same as being right, or being obedient to God’s Spirit, or being wise in other matters. Those Mayflower pilgrims soon went away from their original high-mindedness, like God’s people a thousand years before. Ezekiel rebuked his contemporaries for hiding from any fresh revelation – as all God’s people tend to do. Jesus rebuked his own compatriots and his family for not recognising him as a fresh prophet, with a wisdom and a power from God. As Mark writes: Jesus was amazed at their unbelief – but really he shouldn’t have been. Sadly God’s people have been known for their hesitation, their defensiveness, their self-righteousness ever since the Lord first called Moses. Every generation of believers, including our own, has to balance the assurances of yesterday and the promises of tomorrow, a confidence in what God has done and a trust that he will not stop loving us and loving the world.

Last Sunday Michael was eloquently pleading with us, as people of God, to have a stronger faith. It is the core message of Mark’s Gospel. Let God be God, Emmanuel, God with us. And to trust in such a God may involve exploring some new ideas, some fresh expressions of being the church, some unexpected insights into what God can ask of us, a Christ-like, loving God. It may even take you on your own journey in a quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Mayflower pilgrims were sent on their way by Pastor john Robinson who told them that “the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy Word”. We need to hear that.

Of course what is new is not necessarily true – that is silly and actually rather self-righteous. But to say that nothing new can be true is equally faithless. Does not John’s Gospel have Jesus say “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”  I take that to mean ‘more of the same’ as we do our best to follow Jesus and catch the spirit in which he spoke and acted. A Christlike church will never die.

There’s an old saying that “if God had meant us to trust him for the future, he wouldn’t want us living in the past”. There are always new opportunities and choices, new skills to try and learn, new ways of expressing our faith in words and activity, new challenges to sail away to the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And yes, happiness is in the mix. A familiar hymn reminds us of God’s promise: “mornings of joy give for evenings of tearfulness, trust for our trembling and hope for our fear”.

And the key to happiness is being forgiven – not being right all the time. None of us are free from this sin. Both our readings tell of God’s prophets urging humility and hope on their hearers; God the creator is to be trusted. Just have faith. And as Paul would add, have hope and love also. Such things are signs of heaven on earth. Thank God.

And, speaking of signs of heaven on earth, we shall shortly move to sharing what Paul called the Lord’s supper. Thankfully it is now possible for Elders to serve, as is our tradition. Some call this sacrament ‘journeying mercies’ and so it can be, for those willing to set sail in faith – and not in their own strength – to find their life, their liberty and their true happiness.

Thanks be to God.

Revd Peter Brain

Sunday 27th June

TOUCHING FAITH – Mark 5:21-43

In the passage recorded by Mark (5:21-43) are two stories stories about faith. Almost certainly Mark intended that these two stories, one about the healing of  the daughter of Jairus and the other about the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage – should complement each another.They are intended to be read together. The key to understanding this passage is the story of Jairus with which the passage begins and ends. The story of the woman with the haemorrhage, which is inserted in the middle of the story of Jairus, is intended to demonstrate to Jairus what faith can do.

It is interesting to note that Jairus, a leader in the Synagogue, is given a lesson in faith by a woman, who because she was regarded as ritually ‘unclean’, would never be permitted inside a synagogue.

Jairus was a desperate man. It was sheer despair that made him turn to Jesus and to throw himself at the feet of Jesus and beg. It indicates what a terrible state he was in. That is not surprising as his little girl was desperately ill. So ill that she was dying and this father would do anything to save his little girl. Almost certainly be tried every possible remedy but to no avail. In desperation, and almost certainly as a last resort, he turns to Jesus.

Someone once commentated that faith does not emerge when life is rosy and all well.  It emerges where human competence fails.

But even Jairus’ faith, born of desperation, takes a knock as everything seems to conspire against him. He cannot get near Jesus because of the dense crowds blocking the way. Eventually reaching Jesus and pleading desperately for help, there is a further delay as Jesus becomes distracted by a woman in the crowd whom he engages in conversation. To Jairus it must have appeared that Jesus just did not appreciate the urgency of the situation. What little faith Jairus had when he first set out to seek Jesus’ help  would surely have started to evaporate by now. Then, with one devastating, numbing, blow it’s shattered by the message “Your daughter’s dead”.

It is at this point  we come to the heart of this passage – the words of Jesus (v.36): Don’t be afraid; simply have faith.

These two words about fear and faith link these two story’s together. It’s as if the woman with the haemorrhage is presented by Mark as an example of faith to Jairus. He has been waiting for minutes; she has been waiting for twelve years. She has  suffered setback after setback  –  having her hopes repeatedly dashed as her condition becomes worse and worse.

Jairus, we assume, is suffering his first real encounter with personal tragedy. The woman’s  self-esteem has been systematically destroyed. She desperately tries to conceal her painful vulnerability by using the crowds of people thronging around Jesus as cover.  She has been marginalised for years. So she dare not draw attention to herself by approaching Jesus openly. She reaches out in faith while Jairus, this respected religious leader of the synagogue, in sheer desperation pleads openly for help.

The woman with the haemorrhage reached out to touch Jesus in simple, trembling faith and was freed from her disease.

But more than that, Jesus realising that her restoration to wholeness, her physical well-being,  would only be complete by her  assurance of being acceptable to  God as well as to the society from which she had become estranged by the cruel circumstances of her condition. So he seeks her out and in so doing restores her lost dignity and effects a double healing, by  speaking  the word of ‘salvation’ (v.34) to her: “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace, and be healed  of your disease.” So she’s restored as a person by being restored as  member of the community from which she had been so cruelly excluded. This incident seems to be saying to Jairus: “Look and see what God can do through Jesus”.

Finally, Jairus’ own faith finds its resurrection in the further initiative of Jesus. The heart-rending grief and misery surrounding the bedside of the little girl is confronted by Jesus. The representatives of  unbelief and chaos are driven from the house like so many demons (v.40): After turning everyone out, Jesus took the child’s father and mother and his own companions into the room where the child was.

At last there’s peace, where sleeping faith can awaken. Jesus again takes the initiative, not this time with Jairus, for the word of faith has already been spoken to him. Now the word of life is addressed to this little girl –  bringing resurrection.

One Commentator referring to incidents recorded in Mark’s Gospel has commentated as insiders ‘stumble on’ Jesus and take offence at him, outsiders stumble on him and respond with faith. Everything is inside out. The insiders in this Gospel seem to have the wrong sort of faith and the outsiders the right sort.”

This passage is a lesson to insiders on what it means to have faith. It is  addressed to long-standing members of  the church, like us who sometimes find it hard to believe. Jairus with his wavering, stumbling faith, comes from within the institutions of religion, as we do. He not only learns about faith he sees a demonstration of faith in an outsider, one who was considered unworthy, unclean and excluded..

Jesus told about a man giving a dinner party. Many of the invited guests declined his invitation. So the man said to his servants:

“Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town,
         and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame….
         and to the highways and along the hedgerows
         and compel them to come in.” (Luke 14:16-24)

It’s a parable about the inclusiveness of God’s kingdom  –  in which the insiders are those who build protective walls around them to keep out those who they consider unworthy or inferior. But we may well find that these so-called ‘outsiders’ will enrich and renew our faith;- and our willingness to listen and accept them is itself a powerful demonstration of faith.

But you know the basis of our faith is always the faith God has in us rather than our faith in God. Faith is not so much about our ability to remain true to God but God’s unrelenting perseverance to stay in touch with us! That’s the basis of faith.

At the end of this story Jesus requested that the little girl be given something to eat. Was this an indication  of  Jesus’ holistic interest -his care for the whole needs of people – spiritual, physical, emotional, psychological and political?

Jesus’ life, along with his death, is life-changing.  It  brings ‘wholeness’;  it crosses boundaries, both ethnic (cf. 5:1-20) and gender  (cf.5:21-43).  Jesus chooses not to leave people in the conditions in which he found them.  And he had the power to change their condition.

Can the Christian community today alter the conditions of people’s lives?  Can it, too, bring healing into troubled circumstances?  Must it not also cross boundaries – whether they are  related to ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, politics or any other boundaries that divide our society — and advocate life-giving meaning and change?  Faith, rather than something private and personal, is universally inclusive!

Revd Michael Diffey

Sunday 20th June

When small conquers all

I enjoy painting. I am not good at it, but I enjoy it. I am less a photographic artist than an Impressionist. Don’t get too close! God is an artist. You can see the broad brushstrokes in towering clouds and majestic tree; in rolling waves and the rainbow sunsets. But God is also in the minutae -the tiny insignificant details of life in all its glory. Tiny green shelled beetles; ants that can carry items bigger than they are; the beautiful patterns on a leopard’s coat and the way a new born lamb’s wool covers so closely.

When we contemplate our place in the world I think we feel very small – humbled by the amazing planet and universe we inhabit. My grand-daughter has taken up painting and she says she looks differently at the world now. She is excited by how many greens there are!

In that story from the OT Goliath is portrayed as a giant of a man. He is around 7 ft tall, and so strong he can carry the equivalent of 10 stone as a spear head! No wonder people were afraid of him. Up against him was David, who was little more than a boy, slender so that he could not walk wearing armour. But, confident that he had the protection of God he used his sling shot to kill great Goliath. But I often wonder how he felt when he was standing before this huge human being.

There are times in life when we feel small and powerless. I don’t know about you but I have felt very small in the last fifteen months. I have felt powerless too, not because I was powerful before but because choice and free will seemed to have got lost somehow. Democracy swallowed by the eternal phrase “the science” Feeling powerless to control what is happening to us is one step away from being afraid. And we have all faced fears – about ourselves and our loved ones, about out economy and doomsayers. We have all faced fears to do with climate change and what may happen to our planet if we don’t draw back from the brink very soon. And we feel powerless to do much about any of it.

In the boat in a storm the disciples faced their fears and did the only thing they could think of. They woke Jesus up. Actually they were a bit cross with him. “Don’t you care that we might all be about to die? How can you sleep on your cushion while we are fighting this storm?” Jesus, seeing their fear said to the “Where is your faith?” And he calmed the storm with a few words.

Well we thought our boat was sailing safely towards harbour – a few more days and we would be out of the storm and safely back to normal. (Whatever that is!) But now we know that it’s not over yet, and there is anger and fear and a little bit of bravado.

We need to remember who is powerful beyond all human understanding of the word power; we need to have faith that even if we cannot understand or accept what is happening there is someone we can have faith in, turn to and have hope. The giant of the Philistines and the storm on the lake have no fear for those who believe that God holds all things within God’s plan. Compared to the eternity and the vastness of God’s creation we are small and insignificant. But even our hairs are numbered, and we are treasured.

Hope is wonderful. We have seen our hopes shattered just lately – but God has a plan. It’s a plan that created a wondrous world and peopled it with us; it’s a plan that knew when time began about the war with the Philistines and how it would end, about exile and conquering armies and world wars and covid pandemics. It is a plan that says “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I call you by your name; you are mine”

Life is often an uphill struggle, a daily battle against all sorts of things. But if we believe in the God who loves us, the God who took on humanity and died for us, the God who knows when and how this pandemic will end, just as the storm that terrified the disciples ended, then we can hope. We can be “strong in the strength that God supplies” All things will pass. The small and insignificant like us are strengthened by God to bear what must be borne and to carry what seems impossible and emerge victorious. Do not worry. God is within this fight – and will hold us fast.

Revd Barbara Bennett

Sunday 13th June

Luke 10 from verse 25: the parable of the ‘good’ Samaritan

When it comes to helping and caring and supporting the needy, ‘goodness’ means moving beyond talking the talk to walking the walk.
Justice will not happen without lots of commitment for life!

The parable is almost too familiar. I recall being taken, as most Christian groups are taken, down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It really is down – Jericho is well below sea level. The punch-line is, as every preacher will tell you ever since the letter of James in the New Testament: faith without works is not faith. Those who hear the message and do nothing, says Jesus, are more disobedient than those who never heard the message and did nothing anyway. We cannot say we never knew.

So what can we do? Commitment for Life invites us to be positive, in a world full of negative stories, especially about the Middle East. CforL is not primarily about the relief of immediate suffering – God knows we need that especially after the recent bombings and rocket attacks. But it is about what we sometimes call ‘world development’, a strange phrase which means trying to ensure that things get better overall in the medium and long term. Kindness leading to justice – both aspects of a divine love. (In the church we will see pictures which demonstrate the problem and some efforts being made to build a better future.)

Sometimes the process of world development feels like driving with the handbrake on. There are so many powerful factors at work to prevent things getting better. We could spend a long time compiling a list of reasons why life for all the peoples of that region is fraught with tension and violence and bitterness, a long list beginning with Abraham and continuing to Assad. But in God’s eyes, says Jesus rather controversially, the point is not whose fault it is but what you do about the resultant suffering and poverty.

As I have said many times, just because we cannot do enough can never mean we should not do what we can. Jesus’ teaching, his calling of disciples, his reassurance and encouragement, his challenge to the powerful, his sheer loving kindness – we can replicate this a little. We can think and act, we can pray and we can give; we can actually make a difference.

Reflect on the Commitment for Life prayer:

O God, who gave us life to cherish and enjoy,
and made us capable, in its service,
of costly love and powerful commitment:
help us to choose life in all its fullness,
not only for ourselves and for our children
but for all our struggling world,
for whom you were content to lay down your life
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
AMEN

Revd Peter Brain

Sunday 6th June

READING                    Mark 3: 20-35

 Let’s talk about Beelzebul. Maybe Beelzebub is on everybody’s lips all the time at Glenorchy but, if so, that would be unusual, I think although I can guess he is a regular subject of fervent disfavour in other gatherings of Christians. The curious thing is that nobody really knows the origin of this particular demon whose supposed possession of Jesus so horrifies the religious scholars.

And nobody knows exactly who they have in mind when they make their accusation. But it is clear that they so heartily disapprove of Jesus’s activities that they are convinced he is doing the work of the Devil. Whoever Beelzebul might have been, that’s what they mean.

Jesus wastes no time in pointing out this basic error in their logic and condems his accusers in the strongest possible terms.

Jesus’s family are hurrying to the house to rescue him from the gathering crowd and take him home to safety. But in a further puzzling twist, Jesus turns on his mother and brothers who have come out of sheer concern for him. “They are not my family!” A chilling rejection… He looks round at the crowd of misfits and outcasts and at his disciples – he looks round at this motley bunch and makes the incredible assertion “Not my mother and brothers – these are my family!” These..!

I remember a meeting of a District Council. (Remember when we had those in the United Reformed Church? It was many years ago!) One of the speakers spoke of the Biblical model of the nuclear family. When I challenged the person concerned to quote chapter and verse to support his assertion, reply came there none. Knowing his mother and brothers are outside the house worried sick about what may befall him – but also aware they may be embarrassed by him – Jesus casts them aside.

And the religious leaders are on the wrong side of his tongue too. If some of us instinctively sympathise with Jesus’s rejected family in this little scene, then those of us who have any leadership role in the church might feel a little uncomfortable at his castigation of those in authority.

None of these whom Jesus publicly criticises is evil. They are committed to maintaining family and religious life in troubled times. They are doing their level best to keep things going. And yet, from Jesus’s perspective, these familiar institutions are beyond the pale. That’s not putting it too strongly on the basis of what Mark tells us.

Transfer the scene to this 21st century. If a crowd was pressing around Jesus today, who would they be? Disabled folk, soldiers tormented by the horrors they have witnessed or committed, Palestinian or Yemeni children with their legs blown off by bombs and shells? Or might we see a lesbian mother with a baby on her hip or gay men holding hands or holding their adopted child?

The people who swarm around Jesus are a reflection of the diverse mess of humanity – not a group of morally perfect people but one with all its moral, physical, spiritual beauty and imperfection.

Actually the only ones who are not in the picture are the ones who think they know what religion and family life are supposed to look like. The same Jesus who is infinitely patient with the crowd blasts away at these people. And it is that ability to differentiate between the power of the Holy Spirit and the demonic which seems to be at the heart of the matter. Like those first-century Jews, we live in troubled times and we are doing our best to make sense of things and to work out how to be faithful. The Holy Spirit is wild and disturbing and comes to us, as it did to them, in unfamiliar forms.

Those people who crowded around Jesus sensed in him the power of healing. Somehow he made people feel whole, with a vision of how to live life to the full. That meant removing the blinkers that brought about a focus on particular, narrow ways of being family or being church. It is that healing that is the key to this puzzling, obscure story from Mark’s Gospel.

If only we could set aside our notions of who is in and who is out and instead latch onto that sense of healing. If only we were able to be aware of our own wounds and to have compassion for the wounds of others, that might just be the way into the crowd of people devoted to Jesus – instead of the ‘legitimate’ family he so strongly rejects…

Puzzling and obscure this Gospel passage may be – but it contains profound truth for nothing less than the salvation of the world. Who are Christ’s family whom you welcome here at Glenorchy? Anyone who seeks to do the will of God!  Let us proclaim that truth by living it.

Iain McDonald