Welcome to part time priest. Bits of life come together - priesthood, part time worker, mum, wife, person. Not really part time ontologically, obviously, but I do have other things to do, quite apart from being...and one of them is enjoying sharing ministry experiences and reflections with you.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Through the storm

Image from The Jesus Film
Jesus calms a storm.

Luke 8:22-25
One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’

In our all age worship this morning we looked at the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee.
The 'Sea' of Galilee was really a lake - Israel's largest freshwater lake to be precise, stretching about 33 miles round and the second lowest lying lake in the world, after the Dead Sea, at more than 200m below sea level.
This fact, coupled with its being surrounded by hills, makes it prone to sudden violent storms.
In 4 concise verses, Luke retells a Markan story, also present in Matthew, of the disciples putting out to 'sea' and encountering one such storm.
Jesus has been teaching and they are all tired. They are heading to the opposite shore where they might have respite from the crowds, when a violent squall blows up.
The disciples were seasoned fishermen; this is likely not the first storm they have weathered, but it's a particularly bad one.
Jesus, worn out from teaching the crowds, has fallen into a deep sleep (on a cushion, notes Mark, in a touching detail you could not make up).
It's not until the waves are actually breaking into the boat that the disciples call out for Jesus to wake up and do something about it.
It a great summing up of prayer...Jesus do something about it. 
How does it feel to pray about something for a long time, with apparently nothing changing.
Jesus, can't you do something about it?

The questions we discussed were around the storms that we have faced and come through. How had faith helped? What else helped? (talking, reassessing what we really do believe; other people, hugs, tea, exercise, perspective).
Was it the case that the disciples were just 'lucky' to have Jesus there to get up and intervene for them, while we have to content ourselves with 'knowing' his presence in some non interventionist way? Or does it actually make all the difference that he does accompany us in the storms of today?
One of my favourite questions was 'did the disciples pass or fail?'
We know that Jesus, after stilling the wind and waves, wasn't exactly delighted with their panicked response.

Lake Galilee becalmed. Image by Shuttershock.

They assume he doesn't care, for a start (how often, if I'm honest, have I wondered the same, when some intractable problem wears me down and praying doesn't seem to do anything...)
But Jesus takes one look at their panic and says 'why are you so afraid? Where is your faith?'
Because fear has no place when Jesus is in the boat.

It was beginning to dawn on the disciples, that this Jesus, who was so obviously human that he got tired and fell asleep, was also something more...
Could he also be divine, commanding nature, as did the Creator at the dawn of time?
The obedience of even nature to the command of Jesus leaves the disciples asking exactly the right kind of question - a question at the heart of all Christian spiritual encounter.
Who really is this man?

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Knowing and knowing

Sts John and Bartholomew (aka Nathaniel, right) by Dosso Dossi
Psalm 139: 1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 

John 1:48 Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 

Nathaniel, one of the twelve Apostles, has a bit part in the drama of Jesus' life as told in John's gospel, but he has a cracking opening nonetheless.

Jesus is calling his team together. He's already nabbed Andrew, who told Simon Peter; and now Jesus calls Philip, who tells Nathaniel. 'We've found the one!' says Philip, finding his new enthusiasm for Jesus hard to conceal. 'We've found the one Moses and the prophets wrote about - Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth!' 

'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' answers Nathaniel, laconically.

I can't help thinking about Susan Boyle - the 47 year old spinster with wiry hair and dubious dress sense, who went out onto the stage of Britain's Got Talent back in 2009, to try her singing luck out on a skeptical British public. A more unlikely musical star it was hard to imagine. There were titters bordering on the nasty as she strode up to the mic and told the audience she wanted to be a famous singer, like Elaine Paige. In our celebrity obsessed culture, we've heard it all before. The weary judges looked down their noses and tried to hide their disdain for this unemployed Scottish nobody who'd never left her small town home till now, and whose efforts at humour were nothing if not embarrassing. 

The musical track started up, the audience went quiet, Susan Boyle took a deep breath, and the rest, as they say, is history. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRiJNS8Oz6E

Her rendition of 'I dreamed a dream' from Les Miserables was breathtaking in its power, emotion and technical ability - the audience went wild, the judges were speechless, tears were shed and apologies made for not believing she had anything to offer. She has gone on to be a Grammy nominated multi platinum award winning solo artist with 35 million record sales to date.

We all love the surprise of someone unlikely making good.

'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' asks Nathaniel wearily, as he sits under the fig tree. Nazareth was a northern backwater - not the learned and illustrious place from which the Messiah might emerge. Philip's response is a masterclass in friendship evangelism - 'Come and see', he says to Nathaniel.

In the next scene of Nathaniel's short part, he walks towards Jesus. He thinks he is sussing Jesus out, turing his razor sharp wit upon this unlikely candidate for Saviour of Israel. Let's see him prove himself then! Nothing gets past Nathaniel, with his nose for the ridiculous, his natural sceptic's feel for the fraudulent. 

Jesus spots him coming a way off: 'Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit'. This is a compliment. Because the impatience Nathaniel has with others' meaningless spin and jargon is also turned in upon himself. He's honest through and through. Even his name, Nathaniel, is in the prophetic tradition of Nathan, that hard hitting truth teller who revealed King David's adultery and deception for what they were: 'You are that man!'

Nathaniel's cool, suspicious exterior is penetrated by this personal knowledge Jesus has of him. 'Where did you come to know me?' he demands wonderingly. This knowledge is not passing knowledge - it's not casual, or merely factual. 

The French have two verbs for 'to know' - saviour, to know a fact (the earth is spherical) and connaitre, to know somebody. Knowing is a word full of possibilities. Adam 'knew' his wife, and it meant a lot more than remembering she was called Eve. 

'Where did you come to know me?' says Nathaniel to Jesus.
It echoes the psalmist who testifies, 

Lord, you have searched me and known me. 
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways. 
Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely. 

Nathaniel was a good man, without deceit - a role model for public and political figures perhaps - but even he had completely underestimated the reach of the knowledge of God - the ability Christ has to search our hearts by his Spirit and to know us, inside out. 

'Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
   all the days that were formed for me,

   when none of them as yet existed'. 

What do we do with this knowledge? What do we do with the fact that we know we are fully known?

We cease kidding ourselves, and others. No more masks. If we are known fully, we must be honest with ourselves - our motivations, secret hopes and fears. Listen to your soul. What is it saying? Listen to your body. What is it saying? Listen to your misgivings. What are they saying? And above all, listen to Christ. What is he saying to you? Were is he beckoning? 

If, like Nathaniel we get up from under own own shelters and follow Christ, we too will see that ladder from earth to heaven, the connection between our daily lives and the Incarnation, the birth of Christ amongst us. Christ dwells right here, right now. His Epiphany glory continues to be revealed. How will that transform your life today?

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Wade in the water

This morning at the aptly named St John the Baptist church we thought about the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river.

Why did Jesus come to John the Baptiser to be baptised? Surely the Son of God had no need for the washing away of sin? 

The gospel of Mark records that John had been calling the people to repentance and here is Jesus standing before him asking for water baptism too.

John knew his place though. He knew his baptism would give way to baptism in the Holy Spirit, offered by the Christ. As Jesus came up out of the water the heavens were 'torn apart' and the Holy Spirit rested upon him in the form of a dove. It's just what Isaiah longed for: 'Oh, that you would tear the heavens and come down' - the word for 'tear' is skizomenous, suggesting a violent opening of the skies for the Spirit to be revealed. Mathew and Luke water this down (excuse the pun) to 'open'. It the same word used in English for 'schizophrenic' - a personality disturbed by something. The only other time it appears in the New Testament is when the curtain of the Temple is torn in two at the point of Jesus' death, a point not lost on at least one artist whose depiction of the baptism of Christ foreshadows an obedience 'even to death on a cross':

Original painting by Daniel Bonnell http://www.bonnellart.com/www.lifeonthenile.com/Paintings_1995-2000.html

The Holy Spirit is the empowering one, the one who calls us to wade deeper in the water, as Ezekiel was called to go from ankle deep to chest deep through the river of life. We plopped our stones into a bucket of water as an act of discipleship and decision at the beginning of a new year. To go deeper. To be filled with the Spirit in the middle of the mess and muddle of life. To wade in the water with Ezekiel and to identify with Christ in his obedience to whatever God brings. 

Baptism is expressed in many ways; often in our church it's a few drops on the head of a gurgling baby. At the beginning of the year, still in Epiphany, it's good to imagine being out of our depth, to consider overwhelming, the tearing of something familiar to let in something wild and holy.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Seeking the seekers

Epiphany Sermon

Ephesians  1:3-4 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.  
Matthew 2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 

How do people find Christ today?
It’s something that we should seriously consider now that believers who practice their faith are in something of a minority in the UK today.
If so few of us are in church week by week, that means outside the Church are many who might be seeking, for truth, for love, for meaning, for God perhaps. How will they hear the Good News in a way that means something to them?
It makes sharing our faith with those who don’t know Christ much more of an issue.
How well equipped are we to share the Good News of Christ with our friends and neighbours who might not know him?
The reason our thoughts turn to those outside the faith today is because it’s Epiphany – the revelation of God’s glory to the Gentiles – i.e. those who were outside the Jewish faith.
The Magi, we are told, came from ‘The East’.
They were not part of God’s chosen people; nevertheless they were seeking, and they were spiritually open.
East of Jerusalem would probably be modern day Iraq or Iran, formerly known as Persia.
How did these Magi know that the star they had seen indicated a Messiah, a King?
If we think about the Old Testament, we recall that God’s people were exiled to Babylon – you’ll be familiar with the prophet Daniel, who along with his three friends, Shadrak, Meshak and Abednego, served under the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (he of the enormous gold statue, the fiery furnace and the subsequent incongruous conversion to the Living God).
It’s thought that because of the exiled Jews in Babylon, the Hebrew Scriptures were still available, and that the wise men who’d spotted this new star had somehow identified it with the coming of the Messiah, foretold in the those Scriptures (I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; a Star shall come out of Jacob; a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). 
So these outsiders, these Gentiles seeking a Jewish King, had decided to set out and try and find the king.
In their search, their first move was to study the Hebrew Scriptures and study the sky.
So how are people carrying out their spiritual searching today?
Possible not by those means, but there are many others...
By and large they’re probably not searching in the Churches, however, which poses a challenge to us.
As you look around, observe people in this village, their habits, their hopes and fears; what form does their spiritual search take?
Who are the people you are praying for, asking God to give you a chance to share the Good News?
Here are some observations I have made about those who for whatever reason do not come to Church:
Older generations still sometimes maintain a nominal association with the Church, though they only attend infrequently, and some return to it in times of need, or when they are nearing death.
They still have a faith but it may have ossified, or got stuck at a school child phase, or there’s some sadness that holds them back from a God they once believed in.
Largely speaking those in the younger generation (50 years old and below) have concluded the Church is not the place to seek for spiritual food.
This is a group of largely un-churched people – even in 2004 this group was identified in The Mission Shaped Church Report as upwards of 40% of the UK population - we might have brief daily contact with someone from this group, or know them from neighbourly interaction.
How can we be part of their search for spiritual food?
  • Open our eyes – ask God to give you spiritual insight to see who is seeking
  • Pray! Pray for neighbours We need a locality based prayer scheme – would like someone to take this on – a road from the parish prayed for every week in church.
  • Hunger for God yourself: A spiritually seeking person is alive and vibrant. They speak about faith in a natural convincing way because they’re living it day by day. Sooner or later people will want to know what makes us tick, but we have to be living the life of the Spirit first! 
  • Think of yourself as a witness to Jesus: If you’re not sure of what God has done for you already, read that Ephesians reading and see yourself in that list of blessings!

The Wise Men were on a spiritual quest – they had a starting point; the Messianic references form a dim and distant past – a star in the East.
Their journey was far from straightforward.
They assumed that Herod would know about the new king of the Jews.
They were taken in by his pretence at wanting to know too.
They needed divine intervention – they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod.
Do we believe our un-churched neighbours could receive divine intervention? They might if we pray for them!
God is not above sending dreams to unbelievers – Pharaoh in the Joseph story; King Xerxes in the Esther story (he’d failed to reward Mordecai, God's dream to him led to justice for the threatened Jewish).
Once someone’s on a search, they can be very open to spiritual happenings.
I have heard too many stories from the relatives of those near death to doubt it.
We must resist the assumption that everyone in church has arrived and all those outside are 'outside'.
God is calling us all to prayer and to hunger after him for ourselves and on behalf of others.
You are only here today (and I am only here today) because someone shared the Good News with you…
One of the most encouraging things we can do is share our own stories of coming to faith – and to develop a culture of doing this. 
Do you know the faith stories of the people in the Church family? How has God been real to you; could you talk to someone outside the Church about it?
We end with one such story of seeking:
How one text changed a woman's life.

'A text message from the vicar on behalf of the whole church was the start of a faith journey for Jane Goddard which turned her life around. The text simply said that everyone was praying.

The prayers were for the whole family (who had recently been victims of identity theft) but especially for Jane and Steve's young son Christopher who was seriously ill in hospital. To make matters worse Steve had contracted pneumonia during this stressful period.
"At the time, I wasn't a particularly religious person," said Jane. "Steve and I both believed in God, though he wasn't a big presence in our lives. In my job as a carer, I had regularly accompanied one particular client to church every Sunday - a young man with learning difficulties. Although, I really enjoyed going to St James Church in East Cowes, I was mainly there because it was my job."
The text actually came from the vicar of St James, the Rev Jonathan Hall.
"I know you shouldn't bargain with God but there and then I made a vow to him that if Christopher recovered, I would worship him with all my heart and soul in future. I also pledged to devote myself to making life better for others - to use my skills and talents to help as many people as I could."
When Christopher was discharged from hospital several weeks later Jane immediately signed up for an Alpha course and her faith began to mature. Within a matter of months a new business idea took off and Community Spirited was launched in August 2007 - an organisation that offers caring services to enhance quality of life for vulnerable and lonely people.

Three years on, Christopher is now healthy and thriving. And so is Community Spirited.
Spurred by her Christian faith and promise to God, Jane is determined to run Community Spirited so that she can make a living for her family, pay her staff well, and ensure that all clients are shown genuine respect, love and caring.’
My hope for 2015 is that we’ll be a seeking church – just like the wise men, we’ll set out and not be distracted till we encounter Christ afresh, and we’ll simultaneously keep an eye out for the seekers in this village, and in our wider networks; and we’ll be asking God to empower us to share our own stories and invite others to come and worship him too.