Saturday, 31 January 2015

Not just information - Transformation

Epiphany 4 Sermon

Mark 1:21-22
They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, (Jesus) entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 

In Mark’s gospel this morning we find Jesus in the Synagogue, teaching.
The word is ‘didaskē’, from which we get ‘didactic’.
The Jews were used to Rabbis teaching – the Scribes were learned men who studied the Law, transcribed it and wrote commentaries on it: Ezra, in the OT book of that name, was a scribe. They were ultimately concerned with the written word – hence ‘scribe’ – scribblers.
So in one sense Jesus is not out of place teaching in the Synagogue.
He was a Rabbi, and Rabbis taught.
But in another sense, he was doing something very different.
Mark tells us they were amazed at his teaching because he taught 'as one with authority'.
There are some people who say things and you instantly know their words have power and authenticity.
This capacity to match words and actions with authenticity appears to be sadly lacking in political discourse today.
It’s easy to judge, but we’re so used to hearing people saying one thing and not following it up, or hearing people change their minds the instant it become expedient to do so, we can easily forget what teaching with authority looks like.
Perhaps think of a figure like Nelson Mandela. His life and long-suffering enabled him to speak with authority.
Or Aung San Suu Kyi, Leader of the Burmese opposition Party, who has spent a great deal of her political life under house arrest, fighting human rights abuses whilst suffering them herself, and who is listed as the 61st most influential woman in the world by Forbes.
When she talks about human rights, she speaks as one with authority.
We can only assume that in contrast, the Scribes just talked.
They were no doubt fascinated by the finer points of the Law, and knew every detail of how a good Jew should live.
But did it connect with the common person at all?
Apparently not.

We run the risk of being similarly out of touch today, in the Church.
Pope Frances has been thinking about why young people reject the Church: speaking of those who perhaps have been baptized, even been confirmed, and may attend church semi regularly, he commented they nevertheless have ‘never been truly evangelized. They have never experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ or real transformation through his Church’ (, accessed 30.01.15)

Why is this? He offers 10 reasons:

1.The Church no longer offers anything meaningful or important.
2. The Church appears too weak.
3. The Church appears too distant from their needs.
4. The Church appears too poor to respond to their concerns.
5. The Church appears too cold.
6. The Church appears too caught up with itself.
7. The Church appears to be a prisoner of its own rigid formulas.
8. The world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past.
9. The Church appears unfit to answer the world’s new questions.
10. The Church speaks to people in their infancy but not when they come of age.

These are hard things to face, but may help us to understand the difference in Mark’s story between teaching for moral outcomes only, and the transformation Jesus brings.

The Archbishop was in the news this week for suggesting the same thing, in a sermon to Trinity Church, New York, for their conference on ‘Creating the Common Good’ (about the Church seeking the welfare of the community).
The Telegraph gave the report the title ‘too much claptrap in sermons’, quoting Archbishop Justin: “The old sermons that we have heard so often in England, which I grew up with, which if you boiled them down all they effectively said was: ‘Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if we were all a bit nicer?’
“That is the kind of moral claptrap that Jesus does not permit us to accept.”
 Similarly Jesus was not giving morality training in the synagogue that day.

While he is teaching, as we heard, a man bursts in and starts shouting wildly.
Mark describes the man has having an unclean spirit.
We understand this to be some sort of evil that has got hold of him; something intrusive that has possessed him.
Perhaps the best way we can view it is that possession is similar to addiction – the man is not in control of himself; he needs release and deliverance.
And one thing is clear – the demon (or demons) know who Jesus is.
Mark’s gospel contains the concept of the ‘Messianic secret’ – Jesus didn’t reveal his true identity willy-nilly; he tried to keep it secret, because he knew people would try and make him a celebrity.
But the first to recognise him are demons.
‘What do you want with us? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God’.
The demon shouts out in panic.
The irony of the religious Scribes sitting mute while Jesus talks with a possessed man is intense.
But Jesus will not allow evil to have even a brief platform.
He tells the demon ‘Be silent and come out of him’. The command carries the sense of a muzzle – ‘be silent!’
The man is convulsed and, crying out with loud voice, is released and delivered.
In one small episode, both Jesus’ teaching and his actions are of one piece with each other.
He not only talks the talk – he walks the walk.
This is why Christianity is not about merely information, but transformation.
Let us develop a lens of transformation through which we look at our lives together as a Church.
How does worship transform you?
How does receiving the bread and the wine transform you?
How are you transformed by prayer, by your relationships?
How is your character being transformed, from glory to glory?
Because if we’re only here for the morality, or the interesting information disseminated from the pulpit, we will have nothing dynamic to offer the world, and no power with which to tackle injustice and evil.
So as we share the christian life together, know that Jesus is in the business of transformation - of individual lives and communities. 
As the PCC meet next week, pray for us as we seek God's leading for our church and think about the future.
Not just information – Transformation.

To end, I’m sure you’ll be able to see the difference between the two, in this story from the C of E website, a story about transforming faith.

Finding faith on the doorstep


When Duncan and his wife Helen moved to Kirkheaton, within sight and sound of St. John's, Helen wanted to go. Duncan, having lost interest in anything to do with church (which had figured prominently in his childhood), decided to reluctantly tag along. He often worked on Sundays but when at home opted to join his wife rather than be home alone!
He found the people at St. John's very friendly and welcoming, but this made him suspicious.  'I couldn't wait for the service to end' he said.
That was until Easter Sunday 2008.  Helen as usual was keen, Duncan dragged along behind her not wanting to be left at home.
Here, in Duncan's own words, is what happened next.  'At first I thought I was having a panic attack!  How wrong I was.  I found the Sermon very moving, and inexplicably told Helen that I was going to take Communion for the very first time.  I cannot adequately describe the feelings I had as I humbly knelt there, but I was suddenly overwhelmed both emotionally and physically and I had never experienced anything as powerful before in my life.  I knew then that I belonged to the Church, but most importantly I belonged to God.'
Helen and Duncan joined the Emmaus Course at the church, which they found to be a 'wonderful, rewarding and enjoyable' journey in their faith.  Helen was baptised in October 2008, and both Helen and Duncan were confirmed the following week in Wakefield Cathedral (see pic)
'I am still continuing to grow in my faith' said Duncan 'and I know that my journey will never end.'

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.

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' - savoir, 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?