Meditation on John 21: 15-17 (Lesley)

Restoration

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
 Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

 

I remember that day, on the beach.

Jesus asked me whether I loved him –

the word he used was agape,

the highest form of love, unconditional love.

 

I hung my head.

We both knew I didn’t love him unconditionally,

when the chips were down I had denied him.

 

‘Yes Lord, I said,

you know that I love you’,

but the word that I used for love did not match his,

it was philio,

a friendship love,

a lesser love.

 

‘Feed my lambs’, Jesus said.

What did that mean?

Why choose a man like me?

 

A second time Jesus asked me the same question

and I gave the same answer.

He asked whether I loved him unconditionally

and I replied that I loved him as a sort of friend.

 

He answered saying ‘take care of my sheep’.

I felt desolate, empty,

he knew me completely,

why was asking me these questions?

 

Then a third time he asked,

and I was hurt.

Hurt for two reasons.

Firstly, he now asked me whether I loved him using the word philio.

He had dropped his standards,

had he lost hope in me?

 

Secondly,

surely he was asking me this to punish me,

why else would he keep repeating the question ‘do you love me?’

 

Something inside wanted to scream

‘No, no you know that I don’t love you –

you know that denied you,

you know that I ran away when you faced your suffering,

you know I gave up on you,

you know I doubted you,

for goodness sake.. YOU KNOW’

 

And then something broke inside of me.

Yes, of course he knows,

and I know,

and yet he loves me still,

he loves me with the agape love,

he loves me unconditionally,

no matter what I do,

no matter how badly I let him down.

He loves me.

 

And in those moments of realisation my heart was stilled.

I was a forgiven man,

forgiven by Jesus

and forgiven by myself.

A peace passed through me.

I am broken and weak and loved unconditionally.

 

I looked up at the face of Jesus and for the first time I saw the love in his eyes.

“Lord, you know all things;

you know that I love you.” I said,

this time with conviction.

Jesus smiled ‘Feed my sheep’, he said.

 

And suddenly I knew

I was a new man,

and furthermore

the old Peter could never have fed Jesus’s sheep.

 

The unbroken and unmended Peter

would have fixed Jesus’ sheep,

would have forced Jesus’ sheep,

would have forged ahead and expected Jesus’s sheep to follow.

 

But the new Peter,

beaten by my own weaknesses,

wounded by my own words,

remembering always the suffering of the cross,

restored and forgiven by the man before me

and loved unconditionally.

This man,

this humbler man,

might be able to feed the sheep.

 

My heart swelled with thankfulness,

but no words were needed to express this.

I could see the tenderness in the eyes of my Lord.

 

 

 

All Saint’s Day Sermon (Lesley) John 11:32-44

Lazarus come forth

Lazarus come forth (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

35 Jesus wept.

36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Jesus Raises Lazarus From the Dead

38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.”

40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

How many English Heritage workers does it take to change a lightbulb?

CHANGE?????

Jesus came to change the world, and that is what I want to talk about today.

Today, we are celebrating All saint’s day. Sometimes people think of Saints as people with halos in stained glass windows. They aren’t. Saints in the bible are anyone who follows Jesus. Saints are you and me.

Sometimes people choose to celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us on All Saint’s day, but I prefer to do that at the All Soul’s. Jesus came to change the world, and the church, the disciples, the saints… us… we are the means through which Christ changes the world.

Incredible as that seems.

Sometimes people tell me that Christianity is about being nice.

Sometimes those of us in the Church can give others the impression that the church is all about me, and my comfortable worship space, and the people who make me comfortable.

But it isn’t.. Archbishop William Temple said:

“The Church is the only organisation that exists for the wellbeing and fraternity of its non-members”.

Of course the church exists to bring forward, to bring into existence the Kingdom of God. The place where Love, Joy, Peace exist. The place where people journey towards loving God and one another. The Good News that we offer is that there is a pathway towards light, and not darkness, towards life and not death, towards love and not hate.

This is dramatic, life-changing stuff. Which brings me to the Gospel passage.

Lazarus had been dead for four days. Jesus could have come sooner, but he didn’t. Martha’s words ring like an accusation, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

I guess anyone who has experienced grief has experienced that one.

“If only”

She is talking about the past, but Jesus is very much in the present. I believe that the resurrection isn’t a historical event on Easter Sunday, it is something within us, we are an Easter people.

And so Jesus came to the tomb, the place of death and called out:

LAZARUS, COME OUT!

And so “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

My old Bishop – Bishop Alan once spoke of the church like the figure of Lazarus – we are brought back to life by the power of Jesus – struggling towards the light, covered in grave clothes, staggering, hampered…

I was a lecturer at New College in Oxford and there was a sculpture of Lazarus by Henry More. A huge thing, grave clothes draped around this half dead, half alive body, head at some rather alarming angle, like some sort of zombie. I rather hated it, if I am honest. But since listening to my Bishop I have become more at peace with it. Yes, of course we are half dead, but we are struggling away from that and towards the light.

It reminds me of a quote from Howard Thurman
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who are alive.

So for you, for me, for us,

Where is the life?

Where is the fire?

And let us get unbound and let go. I can almost imagine Jesus laughing – for goodness sake let’s take all those bindings off and let poor old Lazarus free.

What is binding us? Individually or as a church?

Can we:

Unbind our prejudices and let us go with a new view of others.

Unbind our tiredness and let us go refreshed.

Unbind our thinking that the glory days are behind and let us go into a new vitality.

Unbind our fearfulness and let us go trusting God.

Unbind our smallnesses and let us go thinking big.

Unbind our hearts where love stops short and let us go to love everyone.

Unbind us, and let us go.

Amen.

Bible Sunday

Bible

Bible (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

A man was in a hot air balloon and lost, so he spotted a woman on a golf course below and reduced altitude.

“Hello”, he called, “can you tell me where I am – I promised to meet a friend and I have no idea where I am”

She looked up and said “You are in a hot air balloon about 30 feet off the ground, you are 51 degrees North and 0.7 degrees West”.

“Are you an engineer?” he called down?

“Yes” she replied, “but how did you know?”

“Well your information is absolutely true but I’m none the wiser” he replied. “Furthermore I am still lost and frankly you have wasted my time”.

So she thought for a minute and called up to him “Are you in Management?”

“Yes” he replied “but how do you know?”

“Well, you have made a promise you have no idea how to keep, you expect those beneath you to solve your problems and you have risen to where you are thanks to a large volume of hot air”.

 

I guess I tell that joke because I want to explore what we mean by the Bible being “True”.

Of course, first of all we have to determine what we mean by “true” in this context.

There is a statue of Abraham Lincoln at one of the American Universities and he is shown wielding an axe about to come down on the fetters that are binding a slave at his feet. It the statue true – yes. Did it actually happen – no.

I get fed up at the moment hearing about the rise of fundamentalism and in particular creationism at the moment. Since when did Christians need to leave their common sense at the door when they came to church?

And then, of course there is the problem of translation. When I was at vicar school I decided to try to learn Hebrew and Greek. Try being the operative word here. Anyway, we looked at some Hebrew texts. It is a rather tricky language for a few reasons, not least of all because they choose not to include vowels in the text. And then they seem to have dots here and there that mean something but get missed off a fair amount – the jots and tittles that Jesus was referring to. And then the language has only two tenses. Not like English which has loads – past, present, future, perfect, imperfect, conditional, and a load of others. No – Hebrew has two. And they aren’t a useful two like Past and Present – they are perfect (ie done and dusted) and imperfect. So we looked at the phrase when God says “I am what I am”. Well… it is in the imperfect. So it could be “I was being what I ought to be” “ I will be what I am being” “I was going to be what I could have been”. Truthfully, I think just about the only translation it can’t be is “I am what I am”.

You probably know that the New Testament was written in Greek and fairly early on that was translated into Latin, and later still the Latin version was translated into English, giving rise to the King James Version, which is quite a literal translation of the text, but carries quite a lot of errors because of the double translation.

Which reminds me of a story that Alan told me from when he attended a church that was debating which Lord’s Prayer to use – the traditional or the modern. One woman said that she wanted to use the traditional Lord’s Prayer which was in the King James Version because she wanted to say the very words that Jesus used.

So there are many translations now – I suggest that everyone should by one that they find easy to read. My personal favourite is the New Revised Standard Version, which is an update on the RSV which is a pretty faithful translation, I feel. My personal least favourite version is the New International Version, which I think has too much interpretation and anti-women interpretation at that.

However, whichever version of the Bible we use, we have to face the fact that it was written by men, for men. I was arguing with a man online a while back about gay relationships. He quoted Leviticus 18:22 at me – “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable”, so I thought about that. “Are you telling me that the Bible requires me to be a Lesbian?” I asked….

And of course you may well notice in the Ten Commandments, especially if you are a woman, that whilst men are not allowed to covet their neighbours’ wives, there is no prohibition on us coveting our neighbours’ husbands. Not that any woman would ever do that, obviously!

I guess, putting aside the problem of who wrote it and why, and putting aside the problem of translation, the question is where one sees the Bible – does God use it in spite of human failings, limitations and errors, or is it exactly as God wishes it to be? Can it be true without it being literally correct, without an actual Noah, or without an actual Adam and Eve, or does it either have to be all true or if not it is not worth reading?

Let me quote a few verses from the Bible and you decide for yourself whether they are true:

Jeremiah 29:11

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.

Matthew 11:28-29

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Romans 8:37-39

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

John 14:27

“I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.

Rom 8:28

“All things work to the good of those who love Him”

Sermon – John 20.19-31 (Lesley)

The Resurrection of Christ

The Resurrection of Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

 26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

There is a great deal going on in this reading:

–          Jesus says “as the Father sends me so I send you”

–          He breathes on the disciples and says “receive the Holy Spirit”

–          There is the rather peculiar bit about forgiving sins

–          There is the lovely story of Thomas

–          John reveals the reason for writing the Gospel – that through believing you may have life.

I can’t focus on all of these things and so I will focus on the words “As the father sends me, so I send you”

As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus is sending us…

I once heard a sermon from Stephen Cottrell, who was at the time newly the Bishop of Reading, now the Bishop of Chelmsford and he said that these words troubled him…

As the Father sends me, so I send you.

So he got out all his commentaries and he translated back from the original Greek and he looked for all the possible shades of meaning that this verse may have, and in the end, after much work, he concluded that what the verse actually means is…

As the Father sends me, so I send you.

It is shocking. God sent Jesus to minister to His creation, to proclaim the Good News, to heal the sick, bind up the brokenhearted. God the Father sent Jesus – the Messiah, some sort of superhero… and as the Father sent him so Jesus sends us. Little old us. And not some of us, not just the courageous and the articulate and the brainy and the holy ones…. ALL OF US.

No wonder people run away from ordination. Almost every ordained person I know ran from God for as long as they could. For Alan it was six months and then he made the mistake of going to a Vocations Day to prove that he wasn’t called to be a priest. For me it was a year, for a friend I know at the moment it has been two years. The reason we run is because we know that if we say “yes” then we have to face the fact that.

As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us.

But, of course, our baptism is our ordination. For all of us. Or perhaps we might say that our Confirmation is our ordination.

In this text is the model for our confirmation

For those of us who have been confirmed, the bishop says:

God has called you by name and made you his own.

He then lays his hand of the head of each saying:

Confirm, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit.

God calls us and God sends us. It is interesting that we tend to focus more on our “calling” than our “sending”, and yet the Bible is full of the question “who shall I send?” not “who shall I call?”

The deeper we go into the meaning of God’s call for us, the more we find that God is sending us – God called Moses at the burning bush then sent him to set his people free.  God called Isaiah in the vision in the temple and then sent him to be a prophet to his people. God calls us at our baptism and sends us at our confirmation. The sending isn’t optional – it is part and parcel of being a Christian. When we baptise children it is on the understanding that they should be confirmed when they can declare the faith to be their own. The coming of age is a symbol of each of us accepting our sending.

A psychologist priest I know reckons that the Bible has two messages for us.

The first is “I am with you”, the second is “grow up”.

God has called us by name and also God sends us. But we are equipped by the Power of the Holy Spirit and we are equipped by the fellowship and love that we have for each other.

Furthermore we are an Easter People, a group who are formed by the Resurrection. Richard Rohr says:

“To believe in the Resurrection means to cross limits and transcend boundaries. Because of the promise of the Resurrection of Jesus we realistically can believe that tomorrow can be better than today. We are not bound by any past. There is a future that is created by God, and much bigger than our own efforts.

We should not just believe in some kind of survival or immortality or just “life after death”—but Resurrection, an utterly new creation, a transformation into Love that is promised as the final chapter of all history.”

But you will notice that Jesus’ resurrection body carries the scars of his crucifixion. As we all carry scars, I’m sure. Life becomes ever more complex and perplexing, to borrow two words from our Lent book. We end up with scars. These scars don’t evaporate, even in the light of the resurrection. But perhaps they do have their uses. Macabre as is sounds, they helped Thomas, and Jesus offered him exactly what he wanted – to put his hand in his nail marks and in his side. Perhaps, believing in the resurrection, even our scars become part of our sending.

I guess it is a lack of trust in God, this running away from the sending – if we give in to this Hound of Heaven who is gently pursuing us then what will happen? It reminds me of that story of a man who fell off a cliff and half way down he managed to grab hold of a branch. Suspended half way down he called up “is there anybody there?”

“yes” boomed the reply, “it is God, let go and I will catch you”

The man thought for a moment “is there anybody else there?”

The truth is that it is by accepting our sending that we find life in all its fullness. Accepting it without complaining, accepting it without grumbling, accepting it as God’s grace to us. Too often we moan that there are too few of us, or two few doing all the jobs, or complaining that people don’t see things the same way as we do. In these circumstances, if our church life feels like a burden then perhaps we haven’t determined our sending. Once we have stopped running away, stopped fearing that we will be taken, blessed, broken and given to others, then we wonder why we ran in the first place.

As the father sends me… sends me, takes me, blesses me, breaks me, gives me… as the Father sends me, so I send you.

I will finish with a story from a book called “Cutting for Stone” where a boy in an orphanage is talking to his Matron. She tells him that his must play the Gloria. He responds by saying:

“But, Matron, I can’t dream of playing Bach, the ‘Gloria’ . . . ,” He’d never played a string or wind instrument. I couldn’t read music.

“No, not Bach’s ‘Gloria.’ Yours! Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.”

I pray that individually and together we all find our Gloria. Amen.

Sermon – John 12:20-33 (Jennifer)

Corcovado jesus

Corcovado jesus (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Lent 5 2012 St.John’s

Jeremiah 31.31-34       Hebrews 5.5-10     John 12.20-33

When I first heard that my mother had been diagnosed with bowel cancer I was distraught.

That night, in terrible distress I curled up in bed in a tight ball sobbing

‘Oh no not my Mum’

‘This can’t happen to my Mum’

‘Oh God no!’

The universal human cry when something terrible is happening!

Jesus in his humanity was not exempt from this desolation.

In today’s reading from John’s gospel, we’re told that Jesus was troubled in his soul.

– “Father, save me from this hour”

Many people seem to work on the assumption that if you worship and follow God, he will make sure nothing bad happens to you.

Then they are disappointed and ‘loose their faith’.

Because it just doesn’t work like that.

Life is just not like that.

And Christianity has never been an insurance policy.

God sends the rain and the sun on the good and the bad alike.

We all have good times in life and we all have bad times in life.

What God does give Christians, is the assurance that he knows what we’re going through because he has experienced it himself.

When God himself was on earth in the person of Jesus, he experienced all our emotions from the very best to very worst.

But hang on a minute – when we are in the depths of suffering ourselves

and we gaze on the suffering of Our Lord Jesus

Is it really so comforting to know that Jesus went through exactly the same routine.

“God, this is awful, please stop this happening to me,” Jesus prayed.

But it didn’t stop, and the process continued with worse pain for Jesus.

In the garden of Gethsemane on the night before he died he spent the whole night in prayer,

but still it wasn’t over for him

and he had to endure the physical agony of crucifixion

and the emotional and spiritual agony of believing that God himself had deserted him.

How can the God of Love,

God the Father,

allow this to happen to His Beloved Son?

And if God does not even seem to answer Jesus’ prayer what chance do we stand of being saved from our agony?

Oh God no!

Oh God why!

The most intriguing verse in today’s reading from Hebrews is verse 7, where the author says,

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

Was he heard?

On the cross Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And then he died.

So how was he heard by the one who was able to save him from death?

He wasn’t saved from death.

He died just as we all die

and the appalling circumstances of his death make it look as though the reverse is true,

that he wasn’t heard no matter how much he wept and prayed and no matter how reverent his submission.

When somebody is very ill,

one of the problems with praying for healing is that they so often don’t appear to be heard,

because the person dies.

That can leave those who pray feeling very guilty

or very insecure,

as though their prayers weren’t good enough

or they didn’t have enough faith.

But this was exactly what happened to Jesus.

He prayed for life and he died.

Yet the author of Hebrews sees this as “he prayed to the one who was able to save him from death,

and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

Perhaps the answer is that we can’t take the cross in isolation.

It can be understood in part if it stands alone,

for we all go through times of mini-crucifixion when awful things happen in our lives and in which we experience horror and agony and darkness and often the absence of God.

At such times we can identify with Jesus and face our own mini-crucifixion armed with the knowledge that Jesus has been there before us and knows how it feels.

But to look at the cross in its entirety we must include the resurrection.

This is the point of view of the author of Hebrews.

He sees Jesus as very much alive in a new, wonderful, radiant sort of life in some different dimension beyond death.

And this is the message which God is so anxious we should hear.

God is so anxious that we should hear it that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Just think – when we pray to God in the agony of despair

‘Why don’t you do something to end this!’

‘Why does it have to be like this?’

Just think – it was at that moment of supreme agony

Up there on the cross

That God in His Son is saving the world!

This is how he ‘does something’

24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit  –  explains St.John.

Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’

The exact nature of this salvation remains a life long mystery

What we do know is that we do die in this life, many times.

We all have mini-deaths or mini-crucifixions because that’s the nature of human life.

We have good times and we have bad times, just as Jesus had good times and bad times.

Our bodies eventually die, never to be used on this earth again, just as Jesus’ body eventually died and was never used on this earth again.

But Jesus hung in there, facing the bad times and refusing to give up on love or forgiveness,

and as a result Jesus was seen again after death,

in a new body which was rarely recognised even by his closest friends

and which was healed and fit and well.

What we call “death” was but a gateway into a new and different and wonderful life.

We frequently experience this on this earth.

Things go horribly and appallingly wrong and it feels like the end of everything we hold dear,

but eventually…….

now let’s not be naïve about this

for some the suffering does go on and on until it overwhelms them – poor souls! – pray that they find consolation on the other side of death

But usually if we hang in there,

things get better and new and different doorways open into a new kind of life

which is often even better than the former life.

The same thing happens after our final death in this life.

A new doorway opens and we move into a new and different and wonderful life.

So perhaps the writer of Hebrews was right after all.

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

And God promises the same for all of us.

Ash Wednesday Sermon (Lesley) John 1:1-8

Deutsch: Christus im Hause des Pharisäers, Jac...

Image via Wikipedia

John 8:1-11
but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about sin, in preparation for this sermon…. And a memory came back to me that characterises sin for me. I was eighteen and an engineering apprentice. We had to learn how to weld and used various techniques, and it all went pretty smoothly, but the final type of welding required very, very high electric currents. I was with my friend Audrey and we were in a booth that had a metal table and a metal cage around us. The idea being that the welding stick had a high voltage that was earthed when it touched anything metal. So we were wearing protective clothing with a visor that was so dark that you could literally see nothing – it was pitch black and I stood in the total blackness in the booth waiting for her to begin welding. I did see one flash on the table and then after that there were flashes of light from over my head, to the right, to the left, back on the table, then over in another corner… all over the place – accompanied by crashing and banging. I was terrified. I couldn’t run because I couldn’t see and I couldn’t take the visor off because of the flashing arcs of light that would blind me. When Audrey had finally stopped she told me what had happened. She had accidentally welded the welding stick to the specimen, and then she was trying to shake it free, in the process she managed to crash it into the cage in various places and everywhere it made contact with the metal it earthed and so the arcing started.

Why is this like sin? Well because I think what happens to me, and sometimes to others, is we have some issue that is perhaps unseen, a bit like getting the welding stick stuck to the specimen. Let’s say that issue is crushing unworthiness, or fear of the future, or a bad marriage, or a deep grief, or perhaps a desperate shame. But you don’t see any of that, you don’t know about it because it is hidden so deeply. What you perhaps see is me grumpy with my kids, super sensitive about certain things, you see me overworking, or eating too much, or you see me sullen in meetings… All these things are like sparks flying all over the place, and sometimes these are the things that we focus on as sins… but they aren’t ever going to be solved because they aren’t the real problem. The real problem is what happened in the darkness, the wrong thing got welded..!

Turning to the passage, I have struggled more and more with it as the years have gone on. I’ll try to explain why.
For a start Jewish Law says that people can only be accused of adultery if they were caught actually in the act. The law also said that both parties were guilty. So why is only the woman accused of it. Where is the man? It isn’t as if he wasn’t there when the Pharisees turned up. Why did he get away Scot free? Well presumably because being a man he was worth more than her. But what sort of betrayal is this? Betrayal of justice, betrayal of love….?

Or is it worse than this. Is this whole thing a set-up? After all it is only the Pharisees who accuse her… and it seems very convenient that a bunch of Pharisees catch a woman in the very act of adultery in close proximity to where Jesus is teaching so that they can publicly test him and force him to choose between obedience to the Law and the mercy that characterises him. Perhaps she was forced to commit adultery?

Then she was brought before Jesus. The text tells us that Jesus was sitting down and that she was forced to stand. My guess is that as they brought her straight from the act that she was naked, which is why Jesus mostly seems to be leaning forward, bowing his head, drawing in the sandy soil and protecting her modesty.

It is a horrible scene of betrayal and humiliation, all with the aim of catching Jesus out. As a woman and as a priest I have heard horrific stories of abuse and humiliation such that I don’t think I can be shocked any more. For me, these stories wash over my consciousness as I read this story and I am transfixed and appalled by the scene that has developed.

Perhaps you too know stories of shame and humiliation. I confess that as I read this story I have a growing anger towards the Pharisees. We don’t know whether the woman has transgressed in this way or not. But what about the sins of the Pharisees? What about the way they let injustice rule and they let the man go? What about the way they are publicly humiliating this woman just so they can continue their vendetta against Jesus? If they were concerned about her sin and thought Jesus could help then why not let her be clothed and go to him privately? Anger begins to burn in me.

But of course I am doing exactly the same thing as the Pharisees. They are drawing tighter and tighter circles of sinfulness around her and I am doing the same to them.

Jesus is different. He drew an expanded circle of sinfulness that included everyone present and then an even more expansive circle of forgiveness in the words “Neither do I condemn you”.

Once we judge someone then it is difficult to hear God over the clamour of our own ego. Once we have judged then it is difficult to change our minds without losing face. We are called to be open and expansive, not to judge, that we might be able to discern God in amongst our everyday lives. To do this we need a soul that is at peace, not one that is awash with judgement, anger and pride.

But two questions remain for me:

“Is the woman really guilty?” I find myself asking – I’m still struggling to get away from this judging mentality. Jesus said “Go and sin no more” – does he think she was caught doing something wrong? And how could he possibly know if he was clothed in the same humanity that we have, how could he know without asking more questions?

Well, the truth is of course that all of us sin, including her. All of us fall short, and we flail around creating sparks here and there… perhaps some of us have deeper hurts that drive these things and we need to find the courage to deal with them.

I heard a story about a woman who said to her Orthodox priest that she thought confession was useless for her – she didn’t do all those disgusting things that other people do. The priest replied that she should tell this to her husband and children and come back in the morning to tell the priest her decision on whether she wanted to confess. In the morning she came back a different person… and with a very long list.

It is easy to let pride get in the way of our relationship with God. This is why in every mosque, when they do those beautiful mosaics, they always have some flaw in the pattern somewhere – to remind them of their humanness, their brokenness, their incompleteness.

My second question is why the woman remains there once all her accusers have gone. Jesus is sitting down, the woman is standing there, possibly naked…. the text says that everyone goes – including the disciples and all the people who Jesus was teaching. They all slip away and the woman is alone with Jesus. What has happened to her? At the beginning of the story she was dragged along and forced to stand, now she is there voluntarily.

Somehow, in all her nakedness and vulnerability, being with Jesus is safe. Knowing that she was a sinner and an accused woman, she still remains.

I find this surprising, and then I wonder why.

I wonder whether I can be naked before God, real and vulnerable.

Is that an issue for all of us… and if so why?

I wonder whether this Lent we can hear the words of Jesus “Go and sin no more” but also hear the words “neither do I condemn you”..?

Sermon on John 1:1-14 (Lesley)

Image of Jesus, the Divine Word.

Image via Wikipedia

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Light and Darkness

I must confess that I struggled with this sermon all week. I had a hunch that I wanted to speak of light and darkness… and eventually I realised why I was struggling to preach on this… it is the concept of darkness – what does it mean, and are the models helpful?

So the passage speaks of light shining in the darkness, and the darkness not overcoming it… but what is the darkness?
Is the darkness evil? Perhaps, but for me, I find the concept of evil doesn’t help me very much, it tend to make me fearful, or paranoid. Sometimes it makes me project all my problems outwards instead of dealing with the root cause which is probably me. Sometimes I find Christians a bit illogical – they will say that you can tell something is worth doing because it is very difficult and the devil is clearly attacking it…. And then about other things they will say that you can tell that the Spirit is blessing it because it is so easy. I end up wondering if the Spirit or the Devil has anything to do with it or whether it is really their own desires….

Is the darkness sin? Perhaps, but for me, I find focussing on my sinfulness can leave me feeling guilty and worthless. Of course, there are times when I feel convicted of something that I have done wrong and I change my ways, I make amends, I confess what was hidden, I know God’s love and forgiveness and I feel so much better. “Better out than in” is an expression that comes to mind, but perhaps that is not such a nice expression….
But there are other times when I find that I just mess up a bit every day. I find a flash of anger and I shout at the kids, a flash of resentment and I get shirty with my husband, a moment of stupidity and I hurt a friend, a time of business and I neglect my own needs. For me, every day, there is the sincere desire to be the wife, mother and priest God has called me to be, and every day I mess up. I love that quote by Samuel Butler that “Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.” I feel like I am a slow learner… but is that really darkness?

Another possibility is that darkness is unbelief. But, I also find this concept of darkness unhelpful… because I think doubt is critical for growing in faith, and I believe that too many churches try to suppress doubt, saying that it is either sin or from the devil…

You see, most of us, at some stage in our faith journey experience agonising doubt. It feels like we have lost our faith. It is a period of questioning, exploring, falling apart, doubting, dancing around the real issues, sinking in uncertainty, and indulging in self-centeredness. People around us think we are utterly lost. This sudden uncertainty is normally precipitated by a crisis, it makes former truths look like sham, we can’t make any sense of God and we can find no new direction, every route we take only results in more questions. Faith is no longer a support for us, it crumbles before our eyes, we feel remote, immobilized, unsuccessful, hurt, ashamed, or reprehensible. Prayer doesn’t work, church doesn’t work, whatever formula we previously had is now useless.

This is a stage of faith and at the end of it, we hit something that some researchers call “the Wall”. It is impossible to go over, around, or under the Wall. One can only go through it. For me, when I had this experience, I called it “the abyss”… a sense of letting go of faith and of God and falling into the utter darkness. We don’t know it at the time, but it is the point where we integrate the spiritual part of ourselves with the rest of us, where we face our own and other’s demons… it is so unpleasant that we only enter this phase when we are forced to because of a crisis.

The only end to it is when we fully and completely surrender to God’s will, even though we don’t even know whether God exists, and even though we remain in the dark. After the Wall we are never the same…. Is this darkness? I don’t think so.

And so what is the darkness? Let me digress for a moment.

A few of us watched a video by a preacher called Rob Bell up at St Mark’s the other day, and he had a concept of faith that is like a rhythm. And this song, this rhythm has been playing since the dawn of time, it is a song that moves us, and people throughout the ages have heard this rhythm and played along with it… and when we do something mean or we gossip or we steal or we lie, it is discordant… and when we see something kind or loving, it lifts our souls because the person is playing the song, the song that is within our soul. And it can be that people who say they have no religion play to the sound of the song, and others who are very religious confuse us because they seem to be hitting all the wrong notes…. And the song just keeps on playing.

I think this type of idea fits well with the passage that St John wrote…

In the beginning was the “Word”… what on earth does that mean? Well it has strong resonances with the passage in Genesis… In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth… the passage takes us back to the beginning of time, when the song was playing, even before anything was created… But why “the Word”? What does that mean? Again, it takes us back to Genesis, where things come into being when God’s intentions are spoken. St John chooses to call Jesus “The Word” rather than “The Son” because in a sense, “The Word” makes Jesus and God more closely associated than “The Son”, after all many fathers and sons are quite different in nature. The Greek word translated “Word” in this passage is Logos, and it was common in both Greek philosophy and Jewish thought of that day. In the Old Testament logos was personified as the instrument of God’s will and in Greek philosophy logos described the intermediate agency by which God created the world.

I see “The Word” as God’s breath, God’s intention, God’s song, God personified.

The passage then tells us that in the Word was life and light and the light shines in the darkness… the song plays whether others are playing it or not… it resonates through everything.. through us…

Now John the Baptist came as a witness to the light… and that is the same for us. Our job is to try to listen to the song and to try to play in tune, even if we aren’t joined by others.. we need to keep playing. And we are the priesthood of all believers – each of us has a priestly duty to try to listen as best we can for the song, listen for God, look for the light and then to order our lives to that rhythm.

It is my belief that we are most ourselves when we are in tune with God. We are Children of God – it isn’t that we have to repress our personalities, or put a Christian mask on… when we are most in tune with God we are most ourselves. I don’t think that when we are in tune with God we are all clones of Jesus either, we are all created differently, unique, each like a different instrument in the orchestra, playing our little bit as best we can…
And so what is darkness? I believe that it is the places in our communities, in our families and in our hearts where that tune doesn’t seem to reach. It isn’t the odd wrong note, more it is the places where fear or hatred or hopelessness dominate. But we have hope – we need to keep playing the song.. and we have hope – in the words of St John “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” or in the words of Desmund Tutu:

Goodness is stronger than evil;
love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death;
victory is ours through God who loves us.
Amen