Saturday, 21 July 2007

Sermon for the festival of Mary Magdelene

Here's tomorrow's sermon

Year A, B, C Mary Magdelene
The ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’

Today we remember a rather peculiar saint, someone who wasn’t the most expected of saints, a woman. It wasn’t common in the early church, or even in the church up to recent times, to honour women – except for Mary the mother of Jesus, of course – so Mary Magdalene stands out from the list of those who were remembered in the first days of the Church.

Mary of Magdala is exceptional, there was no way of escaping the fact that she is was the one chosen by Jesus to be the first witness to his resurrection, to the promise of new life for all that came on that wonderful Easter morning. But there is also no denying that this is a rememberance of both celebration and of frustration…

That’s right celebration and frustration. And this reflects much of our faith, even as we celebrate the risen life of our Lord Jesus Christ after his passion, the events of Holy Week and his painful, lonely death. We remember that we are, as I’ve said before, an Easter People, people filled with the joy of the new life of Christ and with a hope that conquers even death. Yet we remember that although the resurrection is the most wonder-filled event of our the Christian faith, we still live in a world which is full of pain and death.

But the resurrection is not a panacea for all of the ills of today’s world. The resurrection does not make everything better. In fact the resurrection highlights how painful this world can really be, as it offers a hope which, in contrast to the state of our world today, shows humanity to be sadly lacking in the great virtues of faith, hope and love. We see in the resurrected Christ one who still bears the scars, the holes in hands, feet and side, of the terrible ordeal of Good Friday. The salvation of humanity was won at a price, that price was the pain and suffering of Jesus that led to the cross.

Within our joy, therefore, is that knowledge of the effect that sin can have. Jesus took the sins of humanity on himself in his selfless act of sacrifice. Easter day transforms that suffering, as it shows the love of God made real in the life given back to Christ who gave his away for our sakes. We rightly celebrate this day, but we remember that it is a part of the week, the Holy Week, we have just observed, and that the benefits of new life come to us through the struggle of the passion of our Lord.

But life has overcome death, love has overcome fear and hate, and the wounds of Christ, though still visible, have been healed. Christ offers to us the hope and the joy of the resurrection that, despite how things may look, does point to the ultimate healing of all people and of the creation itself.

We live at a point between the ‘now’ of God’s love, the ‘now’ of the resurrection of Christ, of the power and the ‘now’ of the life of the Holy Spirit made manifest to all people, and the ‘not yet’ of the fullest coming of the reign of God, the ‘not yet’ of the consummation that will mark the restoration of wholeness to our world, still broken. It is this now and not yet that is reflected in the fact that Mary Magdalene in our reading from St John’s Gospel, is face to face with the risen Christ but cannot touch him because the fullness of his reign has not come, the not yet exists even face to face with the now of the reality of Christ’s resurrection.

Christian faith has always kept the ‘now and the not yet’ in tension, this is most evident in the fact that the reign, the ‘kingdom of God’ is among us, and yet is not fully realised. We pray every week that God’s kingdom come and his will be done, recognising that it is not yet here, and we live in that tension. It can be a creative tension. Just as we move from celebrating Easter to the joy and the power of Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is this Spirit that makes everything potential, and that opens up possibilities for the life of the believer today.

The Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of ‘Christ in us’ of ‘Immanuel’ makes it possible for us to live lives that reflect the joy, hope, peace and love of God’s Kingdom. Life is lived in the shadow of the resurrection - now we see in part, one day we shall see fully. Our lives can be filled now with the life and energy of God’s Spirit, but the ultimate healing of the world is yet to come.

And so, like Mary Magdalene we realise that we aren’t at the end of things, we can’t hold on to Jesus once and for all but we hold on to the promise of God, for the hope of New life not just for ourselves but for the whole of the created order. We hold fast to all that God has said he will do.

At the same time we must recognise that we are a part of this reign of God that is making itself real in the world today. The coming of the Kingdom is a process in which we are called to be involved. We are the bearers of the New Life. We have suffered in our own way, we are being healed if we open ourselves to God. We carry the scars of Christ in our own lives, as we have shared in his death through Baptism, so we share his new life through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We are the ‘wounded healers’ of the world - or at least that is what we are called to be.

Like Mary Magdalene, sent out to share the message of the Resurrection, we are the messengers, the ones with the ‘good news to proclaim’, the evangelists, the heralds. If Christ means anything to us then we will carry his love, his healing, his resurrection to the world around us. We are the salt and the light of this world. We acknowledge our own inadequacies and need of healing, we are honest about the sin that returns to us again and again - but we also know that, painfully slow as it may seem, God is at work in and through us in order to bring us to wholeness. We are in tension between the ‘now and the not yet’, between what we long for God to do and our own shortcomings. When we acknowledge our own need for faith, hope and love, when we ask God for wholeness and healing, for our share in the resurrection life of Christ, then we are equipped, little by little, to bring in the Kingdom of God in our own way.

We bring in the reign of God by making ourselves subjects, by allying ourselves with God’s manifesto for the world. As we learn to live, speak and act like Christ, loving God, ourselves and our neighbour we are making real the kingdom which Jesus proclaims. We struggle in our own lives as we seek to be the people God longs for us to be - living as those caught in the creative tension of ‘now and the not yet’ in the joy and the frustration of the resurrection.

We proclaim the Risen Christ, we are the Easter People, like Mary Magdalene, we are those who know, not in our heads but in our hearts and in the depths of our souls that Christ is alive. It is therefore our task to show that life, to share that life with joy and with hope. We can change the world, little by little, maybe only in small ways, but we are the world-changers who carry on the work started by those who going to the tomb in the early morning one Sunday morning found it empty, and were later to encounter the risen Christ. Those who encounter Christ today have the same motivation as those who met him nearly two thousand years ago, the experience of new life, of the hope of the resurrection.

Allelulia, Christ is risen
He is risen indeed, allelulia

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Sermon for Trinity 5, Proper 9

Year C Proper 9 (2007) RCL Principal
The hard road

A favourite word in our household is ‘faffing’. Whenever Jo or I are in a flap or wandering about looking lost we normally ask each other ‘what are you faffing about?’ or when we are in a hurry to get anywhere (not an uncommon situation) and one of us seems to be distracted then the normal attempt to speed things up is to say ‘stop faffing around’. There is a fair amount of faffing goes on in the McCollum household, and in the past couple of years I have discovered how much children can add to it – not just because of all the things we have to do for them before we go anywhere, but because they are discovering lots of ways of faffing themselves!

For those of you who don’t use this wonderful phrase, faffing is generally messing around, being distracted, not having a focus, and not getting done what needs to be done and generally messing around.

There’s not much sign of that in today’s readings.

First of all Naaman the Syrian in the Old Testament reading is given very clear instructions. Go and wash in the Jordan, seven times, and you will be healed of your skin disease. It’s simple, quick, and involves no distractions. Not good enough for Naaman, though, he was used to important stuff, rituals and the like. he wanted a bit of holy hand waving, perhaps a chant or two, maybe something involving silver bowls or chalices and some blessed ointment would have satisfied him. He wanted it complicated. Fortunately his servant had the good sense to talk straight to him – you’ve come all this way, just do it and see what happens. And voila, healing – and a lesson in humility and simplicity.

St Paul, likewise, in today’s reading from Galatians is equally focussed. Do what is right, stop adding unnecessary religious ritual, circumcision to be precise, and all the Jewish laws that go with that. Be those whose concern is not for the flesh, but for living by the Spirit. Don’t be distracted, focus. In the passage at the beginning there are also some wonderful words about forgiveness and grace, so that the failings of others don’t cause you to be ungracious or superior in your attitude, another call not to be distracted from the way of the Spirit. But there’s a whole sermon in there so I will leave it for now!

And in today’s Gospel reading there is another clear message, a message about focus – live the kingdom, and let nothing distract you. Do not be concerned about people’s reaction to you, but be faithful to the kingdom. Don’t take all you can carry, just take what you need. His calling is to simplicity, no faffing!

There are echoes of last week’s reading where those who came to follow Jesus were told – no one who puts their hand to the plough and looks back is fit (or of any use) for the kingdom of God. There is likewise an intensity to the demands Jesus makes to those who are sent out to proclaim the kingdom, a passion that is called for. And the reason for including this in the Gospels is, I believe, not just to relate a story of something that happened when Jesus was leading his disciples, but a word to those of us who follow today.

There are strong messages for us today about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I’ve preached previously on the fact that being a disciple means being disciplined, and accepting the discipline of Jesus, but today’s reading gives and idea of what that discipline may mean for us today.

Firstly the seventy that are sent out are given a sense of urgency. ‘The harvest is plentiful.’. Now those who have any connection with farming will know that when the crop is ready for harvesting then the work needs to be done pretty quick. This was even more the case in Jesus’ day – when the fields were ready, the harvest needed to be taken in a few days, a couple of weeks at most. With the terrible weather we seem to have had around harvest in Britain over the past few years, there is a sense of urgency here too. But it should be the same for those of us who are Christians. there is a sense that people are ready to hear the Gospel, many are open to an encounter with the living Jesus that will break them out of their stereotypical understanding of Christianity into a dynamic, vibrant relationship with a Christ who is alive and who offers new life to all. Many are seeking meaning in all sorts of ways, through all kinds of spiritual quests, now is the time for the Church to offer hope, love, community, faith and meaning to those who lack many of these things in our fragmented world.

We do this by living and sharing the values of the kingdom of God, by telling our story of faith and inviting others to join. We don’t do it by telling people how bad they are and how they need to turn from their wicked lifestyles. God is the one who convicts us of sin and calls us to repentance and forgiveness. In today’s Gospel the seventy were told to say ‘peace to this house’ and to show the good news in the way they healed the sick whilst proclaiming ‘the kingdom of God has come near to you’. Not the kingdom of God is coming, but that the kingdom is near.

Secondly, Jesus declared that the task of doing as he commanded, of living and proclaiming the kingdom, would not be easy - ‘see I am sending you like lambs among wolves’. He prepared them for rejection, saying that if necessary they had to shake off even the dust from their feet from those places which didn’t welcome them. It wasn’t going to be easy, the message of peace wouldn’t be for everyone, they would have no luxuries on the way, they would have to trust entirely on God’s provision and on the kindness of strangers.

It is humbling to me when I receive news of Christian missionaries, of Simon Hildrew from Bourn, or David and Ann Stearn from ‘team west’ who have gone to work for Christ entirely trusting in the support they receive from friends, family and the Church family. I thank God for their faith, and pray for their part in the mission of God. But they, and many others, should inspire us to consider again how much we trust God to provide for us, and whether we rely on our possessions, or our status at work, or our finances to offer us security at the expense of our faith in God. Jesus again reminds us that there are to be no distractions, no faffing about, the kingdom is to be our focus and our priority. But that this will be hard, we will face rejection and we must trust entirely in God for all that we need.

Thirdly, and lastly in our lessons from the sending out of the seventy. Despite the challenge, despite the hardship, despite the difficulties, despite the rejection – we will find ourselves surprised by joy! In verse 17 of chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel we are told that the disciples returned with joy. Their faithfulness had been rewarded and their ministry had flourished. But again Jesus reminds them, and us, to keep focus. Not to rejoice because they saw spiritual victory, but because they worked for the kingdom. Those closing words in verse 20
‘do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’ don’t mean ‘you can be satisfied that you have a place assured in the afterlife’ but that ‘you have performed service for God’s kingdom.

Again we come to the focus, working for God’s kingdom. And there are another thousand sermons in that phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ but we for now it is enough to remember that the kingdom is concerned with peace, justice, hope, love, faith, forgiveness, grace, life and truth. This should be our focus, and this is our calling – stop faffing about, and follow Christ!

Monday, 2 July 2007

A sermon for Trinty 4

Trinity 4 (2007) Year C RCL Principal PROPER 8

Discipleship and discipline

It does often seem that whenever there is an ordination, or a celebration of ministry in the Church then we try to take the clergy down a peg or two! I say this slightly tongue in cheek, but today’s readings and the readings used in the Cathedral yesterday, and the readings we use on Maundy Thursday every year at the renewal of Ordination vows all have something of a hard edge to them, as if we don’t want the Clergy to become too carried away with their status!

And in many ways this is quite appropriate. For years us Clergy enjoyed a certain status and, indeed, power, which led to arrogance and a certain amnesia about the message we are called to proclaim, one of humility, servanthood and the need to rely on God’s grace alone. Today’s readings bring this home in a rather stark way.

There’s so much it would be possible to say about today’s readings. There is a depth and a richness to what is on offer from Scripture for today that I could quite easily spend a number of hours going through today’s readings and simply talking about what is in there – without any extras or interpretations…

But I won’t.

Spend hours that is. But I do want to look closely at the Bible readings we have for today because I believe that there is a thread that holds them all together – an issue that links them, and about which we get a developing perspective as me move through our readings. That theme is one of discipleship.

Now discipleship is not a popular term these days – because it comes from the same root as the word discipline – and in a world where people do pretty much what they want, when they want and where they want (or at least see the freedom to meet their own wants as an ideal) then the idea of discipline does not sit well with a ‘I want’ lifestyle.

But as Christians Ministers, and all of us as followers of Jesus, we are disciples, those who are subject to the discipline of Christ. Those who have promised to follow. So lets look a little more at that theme and start with the story of Elisha and Elijah from the second book of Kings…

Elisha is a tenacious individual. Elijah keeps telling him to wait and Elisha keeps saying no. Good trait for a disciple I think, tenacity, sticking power, the will to do what’s right whatever – but that’s beside the point.

Elisha’s one wish is to inherit a double portion of God’s Spirit from his mentor Elijah. This is a man who has seen what Elijah – the most important prophet in the history of Israel – has done with God’s blessing. Elijah is such an important part of the Jewish faith that when Jesus is joined by tow figures on the mount of transfiguration they are Moses who represents the law, the torah, the commandments and Elijah who represents all of the prophets. Elijah who, faithful to God proclaims God’s truth in a way that the Jewish faith still honours to this day.

But to return to Elisha, here is a man completely dedicated to the work of God in the kingdom of Israel – a man who is willing to give his entire life to the work of God and to the building up of a kingdom of justice and righteousness, as his master had preached.

Already we have a challenge – if we were offered whatever we wanted would it be a double portion of God’s spirit? Or would we look for something more comfortable, something easier.

Elijah is blunt – you have asked a hard thing. I don’t think that he was saying that this was just difficult to achieve, but that this kind of blessing from God comes with great responsibility. That being willing to work in partnership with the Spirit is being willing to go where we are called, where we are led, being willing to make sacrifices, being willing to take the way that is not necessarily the easy way – but being willing to take the hard way, whatever the cost.

But Elisha’s wish is granted and we are shown a measure of the power that comes with this responsibility as he calls upon the name of the Lord to part the waters of the Jordan and they part before him.

That’s what we are seeing here today, that our new Pries, Paul, is taking responsibility, and even ‘asking a hard thing’ with regards to his calling to ministry. It is not always easy to seek to follow Christ, for any of us, and for those in the public eye who offer themselves to the service of Christ and the Church the pressure can sometimes seem constant.

We remember though that God’s Spirit, though he compels us to follow, though the Spirit makes demands on us, is also the comforter – the one who consoles and strengthens and blesses us. And as ministers, indeed for all of us as Christians, we are called to rely more and more on God’s Spirit as we grow in faith.

And it is that trust in God’s provision, above all else, that makes a good priest, but remembering that all of us (in the words of 1 Peter 2v9
are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
It is the calling of all of us to be discipled, to accept the discipline and guidance of the Spirit, along with the promise of grace and comfort that comes with it.

In the passage from Luke’s Gospel that we heard a few minutes ago we see a number of people who are either challenged to follow Jesus or promise to follow him. And Jesus spells out what this will entail.

First of all it may involve a life with hardship ‘foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Next it may involve being willing to cut off from anything that distracts us from the work of the disciple.. Jesus, employing that exaggeration, that hyperbole that he uses to make a point tells one potential follower (we are told) to ‘let the dead bury their own dead, as for you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ There is an urgency about that command, suffering no distractions.

Next, being a disciple involves absolute focus. No one who puts their hand to the plough and looks back is fit (or of any use) to the kingdom of God. When ploughing with oxen, I am told, it is imperative to look at a point at the end of the field and head straight forward, if you look to the side, or even worse to the rear then your furrows will soon end up zig-zagging across the field, and then the sowing and reaping are impossible.

Jesus highlights the absolute dedication needed to be a disciple. A dedication we see in Elijah, Elisha and Jesus followers, as well as so many others in scripture. But in pointing out all of these things we are left with a challenge. A challenge relevant both to Paul whose ministry we celebrate today and a challenge for every Christian -

How are we at being disciples?