Sunday Reflection

Second Sunday in Advent: 5th December 2021

Malachi 3:1-4 

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the  Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

The Song of Zechariah     Luke 1: 68-79

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.

He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.

Through his holy prophets he promised of old,

that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.

He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.

This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,

Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Philippians 1:3-11

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying  with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

Reflection

What all the readings today share in common is the change that will or is happening to people, that leads to salvation. Here we might thinks of salvation as healing and cleansing  process that restores, or even creates anew, the wholeness and goodness of life. 

In the words of the prophet Malachi it is God’s messenger who will so categorically refine and purify us  that we will feel that we can’t withstand the change it makes in us. But we will come through, changed utterly so that what we have to offer will be completely pleasing to God. 

In the words of another prophet – and father to be – Zechariah, the message is one of freedom: freedom from fear, freedom from enemies (and here we might think not only of people, but of big businesses, institutions and even governments).  We will be saved, we will be healed and made holy, and it will be by God’s own doing, by God’s compassion.

The passage from Philippians echoes the message received last week from Paul, that there is so much joy and happiness that arises from being part of a growing fellowship of Christians, active in telling the good news and in their love one for another. Such a group of Christians is seen as producers of a rich harvest of righteousness!

And finally the message of the prophet John, John the Baptist, who will be telling everyone who hears what they must do – and it is a totally transformative process if we are to travel along God’s way  – to see God’s salvation at work. 

We know from the gospel stories that salvation included both physical and mental healing; it included food for the hungry; restoration by those who had gained too much, the repayments of debts, the challenging of unjust laws and social practices, the humble reassessment of life that understood that humans didn’t have all the answers, that we must have faith in God and in the innate wisdom of creation, it valued the lowly and marginalised, and put love at the heart of everything. 

If we truly believed that salvation was coming to the world this Christmas, how would this new world order look like? Here are just three examples:-

Justice for refugees and migrants meaning that they would not fear persecution, or hunger, or ill health or  disrespect either in their home land or in their new home.

Justice for birds and animals, for plants and insects meaning that their natural habitats would not be destroyed, that they would not be diminished by pollution and other poisons, by over consumption or poaching.

Justice for those who are persecuted because of the colour of their skin, the sound of their voice, the shape of their face, the texture of the hair, their sexual orientation, meaning that everyone would be valued as unique and equally important individuals.

The world could indeed be a wonderful place! Yet I think the prophets were right to suggest that to get humankind there would be hard graft. Humankind, people and societies, individuals and organisations, need to be overhauled and purified,; the means and systems for getting things done need to be straightened and levelled up. 

Where do we come in? What can we do?

As with last week’s epistle, we should aspire to match the example of the early church.  We should be zealous in loving one another and in building up that fellowship produces boundless joy. That would be good of itself and will witness to good news of following Jesus. We need to come together, to stand together and to be a visible -large and numerous – body that speaks out for justice.

We also need to  be messengers calling people to turn their lives round and to live according  to God’s ways – ways that involve the examples of justice we have just imagined and more. More often than not the people to whom we must call out  are businesses, organisations, and governments. This we will do more effectively as one body. Whilst as individuals we can both set the example of how one should live, and then with greater effect  talk to friends, family and neighbours.

Now is the time for change!

Sunday Reflection

28th November 2021, first Sunday of Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

Psalm 25:1-9

1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul;
my God, I put my trust in you; *
let me not be humiliated,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.

2 Let none who look to you be put to shame; *
let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

3 Show me your ways, O Lord, *
and teach me your paths.

4 Lead me in your truth and teach me, *
for you are the God of my salvation;
in you have I trusted all the day long.

5 Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, *
for they are from everlasting.

6 Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; *
remember me according to your love
and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.

7 Gracious and upright is the Lord; *
therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

8 He guides the humble in doing right *
and teaches his way to the lowly.

9 All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness *
to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Luke 21:25-36

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Reflection

Today is the first day in Advent and the first day in the church’s year when we embark once more on the journey of expectation that brings us to the mystery of the incarnation and a season of revelations about the amazing nature of God; the journey of repentance and new beginnings that brings us to the mystery of both death and life, and a season of growing in faith as we come to realise the breadth, length and depth of God’s kin-dom of love. 

The reading from Jeremiah sets us off with the notion of expectation: a certain expectation that God’s promises will be fulfilled. Jeremiah points to the coming of someone who will stand up for justice and righteousness in the world, and specifically that that righteousness will be the righteousness – the right way of living, the right way in which to inhabit this earth – of God. How can we go wrong if we use God as the measure or pattern of what is right?

In the epistle Paul is writing to the fledgling community at Thessalonica. A community of people whose love for God and devotion to serving and following God in Jesus Christ is such that it bubbles over with joy. Simply through knowing them, Paul is filled with joy. It sounds like an infectious joy! 

I wonder how often we get say to someone in church, ‘Your faith, your love of the Lord, fills me with joy!’?

Where does that joy spring from? What nurtures it? Love, says Paul, love for one another and ‘for all’ – is this ‘all’ the all of creation: plants and animals, ecosystems and microcosms? A love that is reciprocated one to another. A love that builds up strength and holiness ready for the coming of Jesus.

That love is the way of God, the way to overcome adversity, the way to ride out threats of embarrassment and humiliation. Love, says the psalmist, is what God teaches us; it is the way of righteousness.

The passage from Luke’s gospel reminds us that times of threat and uncertainty are nothing new, and that they can lead to fear and confusion when people cannot make sense of what is a happening. Don’t be frightened, says Jesus, rather stand up and understand that redemption is at hand, that the power and glory – the way of life and joy – of Jesus will prevail.

Then Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree: learn to read the signs. Learn to understand what these signs, these events are telling you. Study how they should inform the way you live. Is that not what we should be doing faced as we are now with droughts and storms, wild fires and floods; with a growing greed among some that impoverishes and destroys the lives of others; with increasing global temperatures because we can not curb of production of carbon dioxide; with a blinkered view of the world that does not see that excessive consumption cannot be maintained from a world of finite resources?

If we can read the signs and understand what they say about the right and wrong ways of living, and adapt the way we live – and the way we love – then we will not be caught out! Be on your guard, says Jesus. Do not allow your worries to weigh you down. Don’t try and hide from your fears by simply consuming more and more – that is the way of drunkenness and dissipation. Rather be alert. Be prayerful. Seek the strength that comes from God – strength that comes through love.

Postscript/ action

This week our daughter has been protesting outside one of the Amazon fulfilment warehouses. Amazon does in many ways stand for what is wrong in the world. It makes huge profits at the expense of its workers and subcontractors – and without paying its fare share of taxes. It promotes the concept that the more you buy the happier you will be. It disregards any awareness that the world’s resources are finite – and returned and unwanted items are thrown away unused! It encourages long supply chains and severs connections between producer and consumer  so that the latter can buy oblivious to any damage that is being caused to the environment on their behalf. And with its huge size and financial clout, it seeks to remove all other sources of commerce. Here in East Sheen, where we have no lack of food shops, it has introduced its own form of fresh food store with the idea that we cannot/ should not have to spend time pausing to pay for what we buy!

We personally as a household choose now to boycott Amazon: we choose not to buy through their markets – we choose not to contribute to Amazon’s  profits; we choose not to be sucked into their  online shopping malls that offer anything and everything at the mere click of a button.

We choose to be ‘Amazon Free for the wellbeing of the world’. 

Sunday Reflection

21st November 2021: Feast of Christ the King

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

As I watched,

thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,

his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;

his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.

A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.

A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.

The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.

As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.

And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.

To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,

that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,

and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

Psalm 93

1 The Lord is King;
he has put on splendid apparel; *
the Lord has put on his apparel
and girded himself with strength.

2 He has made the whole world so sure *
that it cannot be moved;

3 Ever since the world began, your throne has been established; *
you are from everlasting.

4 The waters have lifted up, O Lord,
the waters have lifted up their voice; *
the waters have lifted up their pounding waves.

5 Mightier than the sound of many waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea, *
mightier is the Lord who dwells on high.

6 Your testimonies are very sure, *
and holiness adorns your house, O Lord,
for ever and for evermore.

Revelation 1:4b-8

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,

even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.

So it is to be. Amen.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

John 18:33-37

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Reflection 

Today is the feast of Christ the King, and our readings have the theme of dominion and kingdom. 

In science the world of living organisms is divided into five kingdoms using a system devised by Carl Linnaeus. These are the  kingdoms of animals (all multicellular creatures), plants, fungi, protists (Amoeba, Chlorella and Plasmodium) and prokaryotes (bacteria, blue-green algae). The classification system then recognises that each kingdom can be further subdivided. The kingdom of animals subdivides into phylum one of which – Chordata – includes all creatures with back bones. Phylum can then be subdivided into classes. Chordata for example has the subdivision of mammals. And so on. 

This plurality of Kingdoms and subdivisions overlap and co-exist and are dependent on each other for survival. In today’s readings we hear of the kingdoms of heaven and of earth, and it would seem that they too incorporate differences and interdependencies. Earth is not separate from heaven, but through the presence and involvement of God are interdependent – this seems to me to be what John is grappling with as he records this speech between Pilate and Jesus. 

In the Psalm we hear how the Lord – God – is king. God’s kingdom is what God has created and the strength of  God’s dominion, power, rule, comes from the firmness, the immovability of the earth – and yet even the strength God has created there cannot over come God. God is more than strength. Divine dominion comes from the excellence of God’s truth and holiness. The  response of the earth (here it is specifically the waves) is to lift up its voice – presumably in joy and praise and admiration  and honour. 

From the reading from the Book of Daniel we learn that the difference between God’s dominion and that of earthly dominions, is that whilst the latter may pass away, the former will not. This is echoed at the end of the passage from Revelation: for God is the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega. 

The Book of Daniel presents the kingdom, the realm of God as a place of hierarchy. There are many – lesser – thrones and the one throne of God. This heavenly throne is at the centre from which flows fire  – a divine emanation  – and around the oneness of God are thousands upon thousands of those who serve, and even more thousands of thousands who attend/ worship God. These thousands are dwellers of the heavenly realm. It is in this place, this court that we see the one, like a human, to whom all power and dominion in earth – the place of peoples, nations and languages – is given. For us as Christian readers, this is Jesus, the anointed one, who is bringing together the dominions of earth and heaven. This relationship between the kingdoms and heaven and earth and the intertwining role of Jesus is also being explored in today’s reading from Revelation. 

It is good for us to be reminded that we are not the rulers of any of the kingdoms whether of earth or heaven. Rather we need to be ones who serve and and worship God.

Reflection for Remembrance Sunday

Sunday 14th November 2021

Collect: God, our refuge and strength, bring near the day when wars shall  cease and poverty and pain shall end, that earth may know the peace of heaven, through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.

Daniel: 12:1-3  https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=503649379

Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25 https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=503649490

Mark 13:1-8.  https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=503649562

Reflection 

Michael the great prince is more usually (for us) known as St Michael or as one of  the four archangels. These archangels are said to stand round the throne of God from where they watch over the four corners of the earth. Michael  also appears in the Book of Revelation where he engages in battle with a dragon which is Satan, ‘the great deceiver of the whole world’ and  drives him out of heaven. In pictures and statues Michael is often depicted with a sword or spear as he attacks Satan. 

Michael the archangel – on the basis of this passage from Daniel – has the particular role of protector of God’s people.  For the readers of the Book of Daniel the people of God were the Jews, and perhaps in particular those  exiled to Babylon and their descendants. For me,  God’s people are all people for all are part of God’s creation. If we were to create a contemporary representation of Michael  as the archangel who watches over the earth and protects God’s people, I wonder what symbols we use? 

Would we still see military arms as a way of protecting people?  Would we see confrontation as the way of subduing the great deceiver?

Or would we want tools that suggestion negotiation or justice? Mobile phones and cans of Irn Bru? Rainbow flags and circular seating plans? 

Would we want items that could protect people and build peaceable communities?  Things like food supplies, tents and roads, sanitation and drinking water, medicines and vaccines, seeds and solar panels?

Would we want arguments and adverts to reveal the deceits and green wash that hold sway across the world? Just and equal access to decision making processes? Scientific explanations rather  than political spin and one-up-manship?

Would we want words and actions that united people so that efforts to avoid war and distaste could flourish? 

Can we together tackle the crises that beset the world? Can we help each other, value and protect each other? 

Can we live and work within the divine plan that establishes heaven on earth?

The  passage from Hebrews , like that from Daniel, is imagining a time of salvation, of deliverance, when heaven on earth will be a reality. In Daniel it is a future event; in Hebrews it is an event that has taken place – a promise that has become a certainty through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. As in previous weeks’ readings, this heavenly realm, this place where God’s rule prevails, is depicted as  being a heavenly of which the one reverenced by the Israelites during their time in the wilderness was but a temporal version. It is a sanctuary that all, having been sanctified by Jesus’s blood, may enter. It is a sanctuary in which all may be washed clean,  consciences cleared of evil. And such is the wellbeing that this destination  gives, that the writer urges us ‘provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…’  Just as we have the image  of Micheal intervening to thwart  the great deceiver and to actively protect God’s people, so here we have Jesus as the beacon encouraging us to nurture one another’s well being for that is how the rule of heaven is made real.

In Mark’s gospel the disciples are overwhelmed by the scale of the temple and the security and magnificence it projects. They are persuaded – maybe even conned/ brain washed – into see it as the 

promise of their salvation and security. Jesus attempts to help them to see things differently. He tells them that those stones, that temple, will not stand for ever and will not protect them. If Jesus is talking about the end of days, the disciples seem perhaps to imagine that they will be whisked out of the way of any impending danger. Not so. Rather they will be faced with famines and earthquakes and all manner of disasters before the kingdom, the rule of heaven becomes a reality. 

It can be easy or perhaps simplistic, to think when we hear of disasters, earthquakes and famines, to stand by and wait to see what happens. But I think the example of the archangel Michael, and the words of the writer of Hebrews, tell us that we must face down the deceptions of the great deceiver (in what ever form they may arise) and must proactively encourage good and loving deeds in all people. 

Today is Remembrance Sunday and we remember with love and sorrow those who lost their lives because of war. But war is not an acceptable disaster, it is not the acceptable answer to danger and sin. Remembrance Sunday is the occasion that prompts us to build peace, to be brought under the rule of heaven, and to encourage, in and for all, good and loving deeds.

Sunday Reflection

7th November 2021, Third Sunday before Advent

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 (https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=503219101)

Hebrews 9:24-28 https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=503219165

Mark 1:14-20 https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=503219236

Reflection 

The next few weeks leading up to Advent Sunday and the start of a new church year, are called the Kingdom Season. In Greek (the language of the Gospels and Letters) the word typically translated as kingdom is βασιλεία/ basileia. Whilst the word can be translated as kingdom, it can equally be translated as sovereignty, rule, authority or reign. I prefer these alternatives partly because they are not gender specific, but also because they are not familiar and therefore make us think about what is being meant.

We only have part of the story of Jonah, but enough to understand its message. This reading has been specifically chosen for the season when we are reflecting on the theme of rule or sovereignty, but who is the ruler of Nineveh? What is the nature of the authority that holds sway in this city? Is there a human ruler? One is not mentioned. Rather it is God’s rule that ultimately prevails – even if here it does so by dint of threat. 

It is interesting that in this story  God expects a prophet to preach not only to those people who saw themselves as God’s people, but also to those who might have other ‘gods’. In God’s eyes they are all God’s people, worthy of God’s concern and love. That to me says two things that are important about God’s ‘kingdom’, God’s reign. First where God reigns, where God’s rule prevails, there is always scope for repentance and a fresh start. Second, God’s rule is there to benefit those who acknowledge God as their God and those who do not: God’s love and concern is for everyone – and that includes I believe, our flora and fauna brethren too. Indeed why would that love and concern not extend to all that God has created?

As this Sunday occurs in the middle of the COP26 global climate conference we might pause and reflect whether this passage from Jonah might be a direct message to us today. If we are familiar with the whole story, we will know that God had judged the behaviour of the people of Nineveh as having fallen short of the mark, such that they were in imminent threat of total destruction. Does that not echo our situation today? Will we respond with similar alacrity, repenting of the wrong of our past ways of life and eager to live a reformed life that will protect us from annihilation?

As noted previously, the writer of Hebrews focuses on the tabernacle, and its customs and custodians, (rather than the later temple) as the earthly and imperfect model of what is God’s intention for the world. The tabernacle in Exodus was certainly the earthly place where God resided – and in Ancient Greek, basileia means a royal palace. The tabernacle is an earthly token representing God’s kingdom/ rule/ reign. And so it is that the sanctuary/ the palace that Jesus enters is not earthly but heavenly. Jesus has opened the way to a heavenly rule, an era – or rather an eternity – in which God reigns. The assurance of sins forgiven, has already been given by Jesus; now we await that time when Jesus will save us by establishing God’s reign as a universal given. 

So to Mark’s gospel with its clarion call.

 ‘The time is completed and the reign of God is approaching. Revise your thinking and trust in the good news.’ 

How do we respond to that message? Are we ready to rethink the way we live in terms of God’s ways, God’s rule? Are we willing to trust in the good news that Jesus brings rather than the news told by our politicians, by financiers and economists, by business leaders and advertisers, by trend setters and Instagram? Could we with alacrity leave behind our previous way of living, our previous mode of employment and simply follow the example, the teaching of Jesus?

That I think is the challenge of the ‘kingdom season’ rather than it being a season when we imagine that in the future there may be a wonderful kingdom of peace and light. What might the fulfilment of this season look like? 

Sunday Reflection

31st October 2021, 4th before Advent

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=502594426 Hebrews 9:11-14 https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=502594518 Mark 12:28-34 https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=502594610

Reflection 

The text of Deuteronomy offers the people a quid pro quo: if you obey this command, then your days will be long, all will go well with you and you will multiply – ie dwell in growing number – in a land flowing with milk and honey. Wow! Who would not want that?

And what is the the qualifying command? That you love God with your total being, with the totality of your existence. The lawyerly minded might then ask for clarification: what is it to love God? For the writer of Deuteronomy, the answer has already been given. It is to keep all God’s statutes and ordinances which Deuteronomy details. To love God is to do that which God wants, to live life the way God directs. There is a great simplicity and logic in this. It is what one might expect when we read the creation stories, for they tell us that God created a world that was good, which was full of life and which was created so that that life in all its forms might multiply and flourish. To live in harmony in such a creation is surely to live in accordance with the creator’s intentions. 

Yet the fact that something is highly desirable and is straightforward to achieve, doesn’t necessarily mean that is what will happen. We know from reading the rest of the Bible that the people of Israel had great difficulty in sticking to following the ways of God. And we can clearly see when we look around the world now and see suffering, war, greed, destruction, deceit … that humanity still finds this a hard task. 

The Letter to the Hebrews uses much of the imagery and ideas of the Pentateuch, envisaging Jesus as the ultimate high priest – the one who mediates between humans (and indeed not just humans but creation too as we will see later) and God. The writer describes Jesus as the high priest of ‘the good things that have come’. Again the message that what God is and does give us, is good! He is also the high priest who, through his own death, has redeemed us for all ‘dead works’ so that we can worship the living God. Again a message that picks up the same message as that in Deuteronomy:  the desire that we should be in tune with God. To worship is to recognise the worth God, to offer our understanding of God’s nature. Jesus enables us to worship God not only because he embodies the nature of God in human form, but also because he redeems us from ‘dead works’: those things that come between us and God and between us and the rest of creation – those things that lead to suffering, war, greed, destruction, deceit. Jesus both aids our relationship with God and the resulting enjoyment of what is good in the world, and removes those stumbling blocks that damage that relationship. 

The passage from Mark continues on the theme of the kingdom of God and how one might access it. (A few weeks ago we heard of the rich man whose love of his wealth impeded his access). In today’s episode, the dialogue between the scribe and Jesus probe what  is involved in coming close to – and entering – the kingdom of heaven. The answer is two fold: loving God and loving neighbour. If we were to return to the creation stories, and in particular that set in the Garden of Eden, we would see that these as the subtext of that story. Whilst Adam and Eve and their companions – all the creatures God had created and which Adam had named – followed that two fold lifestyle, they enjoyed the fruitful life in the Garden. And maybe that too was a land flowing with milk and honey. But when they all respectively failed to love God and their neighbours, their companions, they found themselves living in a place of hardship and pain and enmity. 

And isn’t that still where we find ourselves today? As the delegates gather for COP26 and all the non delegates arrive in person or via zoom, we come to a crunch point in the wellbeing of the world. Over the decades and indeed the centuries, we have not loved our fellow neighbours, both our human brothers and sisters, and our creaturely brothers and sisters. We have not loved our common home but have allowed greed and cruelty, envy and ignorance to damage and despoil the land where we live. 

Let us pray earnestly that our global leaders will make the right decisions. Equally let us pray that we too as responsible individuals will do all we can to live penitent lives, truly loving God and neighbour  with all our being.

Sunday Reflection

24th October 2021, Proper 25

Jeremiah 31:7-9 (https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=501918569) Hebrews 7:23-28 (https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=501918639) Mark 10: 46-52 (https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=501913875)

Reflection 

The reading from Jeremiah is so upbeat and full of joy. God is bringing together all God’s people, from the very ends of the earth, those who have been disadvantaged and sidelined, the marginalised, the young and the old. God will bring them back together, console and lead them, caring for them as a loving parent. The passage begins with a call to the leaders that they should praise God and pray for salvation. Will our nations’ leaders do the same for us at COP26? There are plenty of people around the world waiting for a time of celebration!

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we have in Jesus the ultimate companion, guide and priest. The one who will always be with us, who will always be the means of our salvation, and who will always intercede on our behalf. At times of seeming hopelessness, we need to be reminded of this certainty.

It is not often we learn the names of the people that Jesus encounters. We hear of the woman with haemorrhage but not her name, of the paralysed man – ditto, the Syro-Phonecian woman, Peter’s mother-in-law: all are anonymous. But here we know the man’s name and that of his father too, and we know where he lives: he is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, resident of Jericho.  He is a beggar so maybe life’s opportunities have passed him by. As a crowd gathers along the road side, people are less than generous towards Bartimaeus. They scold him for calling out to Jesus – are they embarrassed by him? Do they think people like him should be kept in the background? Do they think Jesus should only meet upright, ‘proper’ people?

If so, they have not been paying attention. Jesus is often sought out by the vulnerable, the excluded, the despised, and each time his response to them is always focused on their needs, full of love and compassion. Once Jesus has responded to Bartimaeus’s call, the crowd shifts its approach and now encourages Bartimaeus to get up and meet Jesus. How fickle a crowd can be!

Jesus’s question to Bartimaeus is interesting. He doesn’t assume that what Bartimaeus wants is sight – indeed may be Bartimaeus’s first desire was to be heard. People labelled as disabled, don’t always see their difference as something unwanted, as something they wish to be rid of. Rather what they may want acceptance and understanding, an place of equal standing in society. In this instance, Bartimaeus does want to regain his sight, he wants to see again. It transpires that what Bartimaeus doesn’t want to do is to stay where he is. He doesn’t want to remain by the roadside on the way into Jericho, the butt of people’s shifting opinions. He wants to go with Jesus, to follow him and become part of the transformative society that Jesus is creating. 

In that there is a message for us. What do we want, both for ourselves and our society – our world?  And can we be part of the change? Next Sunday sees the start of COP26 in Glasgow. Decisions made there have the potential to transform for the better, the lives of so many. Let us make sure our voices are heard, our wishes declared.

Sunday Reflection 

17th October 2021, proper 24

Isaiah 53:4-12 https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=501459221

Psalm 91:9-16 https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=501459312

Hebrews 5:1-10 https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=501459357

Mark 10:35-45 https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=501459405

Reflection

At the heart of today’s readings are two themes: suffering and service. 

‘He bore our infirmities, our diseases and was wounded because of our transgressions’, to paraphrase Isaiah. This passage from Isaiah, reveals the prophet’s understanding of how society can behave, how it deals with the little people when the rich and wicked hold sway. 

Today we can look around the world and see a myriad of little people, of plants and creatures that  bear the infirmities, diseases and wounds caused by our transgressions. Our failure to care for the planet, our failure to curb carbon emissions, our over-consumption of finite resources, our inability to share the earth’s bounty, our failure to protect habitats and ecosystems, our greed and hardness of heart that leads to conflict. Suffering is invariably caused by human failings, human greed, human ignorance and disinterest – now, back then in the days of the Jewish Exile, back in first century Palestine and in all the years since.

Yet Isaiah’s insight also reveals God’s commitment to the world, the suffering and injustice that God is willing to endure to bring about healing and redemption. No matter how much suffering human sinfulness causes, God does not give up on us but bears with us. This is a prophecy that is relived in the life of Jesus – and thereafter in the lives of his followers: for Jesus, the living word, is there alongside each person in their pain and suffering. He is with us in our darkest places and it is he who can bring us hope and consolation. 

“The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous” says the passage from Isaiah. And the passage from today’s gospel concludes “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”. To serve is the vocation of the Son of Man. The word in Greek is ‘diakaneo’ and it is a word used frequently in the gospels. When Jesus heals Peter’s mother in law, she gets up and  ‘diakaneo’ or serves them, or as I have always imagined, cooks them a meal for I am sure that at the end of a sabbath spent healing and teaching, they were both hungry.

It is what the angels do for Jesus when the devil has finished tempting him in the wilderness, which again I am sure involved food and drink as well perhaps attending to his tired feet.

In the parable of the sheep and goats, in Matthew’s gospel, it is what the goats failed to do, when they do not see Jesus in the one who was hungry and thirsty, who was the stranger, who was naked, sick or in prison.

It is what the women disciples did for Jesus when they provided financial support. It is what Martha complained about when left to do it by herself while Mary just sat and listened. 

To serve – to diakaneo – is putting oneself at the disposal of another, to minister to their needs.  This suggests that to serve is also about being aware and sensitive to what people might be in need of – something Jesus was good at. He was able to intuit what someone needed and sometimes knowing what they needed, even though they themselves didn’t know: forgiving the sins of the paralysed man, knowing that Zacchaeus needed to be wanted, or persuading Martha that there were times when preparing a meal wasn’t the most important thing. 

What serving is not, is lording it over others, nor is it pulling rank, nor basking in glory. That is the way of tyrants – and sadly, it is nowadays often the way of politicians (not all) or of rich business leaders (again not all). Just for a moment imagine what the world would be like if all politicians and all business leaders saw their role as one of service, serving not just their nearest and dearest, but serving all. And what if we all equally saw our role as one of service too, serving both are fellow human beings and our fellow creatures, from earth worms to orang-utans. Would this not begin to look like heaven in earth? A world where each is served by and serves the needs of, others.

Jesus is realistic with his followers. He sees the mismatch between those who wish to lord it over others and those who wish to serve the common good. He knows the likelihood of pain and suffering to which the latter will be subject. For most of us who would wish to see service as the basis of life, such suffering will be the stress and anguished felt when we look at what is happening around the world: people stranded in the wrong side of the Afghan border, people caught in the cross fire in Lebanon, people stabbed to death for being of the wrong colour or creed, the continued investment in fossil fuels instead of renewables, people facing hunger for lack of money in a world of billionaires. Cor others the pain and suffering will be physical and sometimes fatal. 

When we are baptised, we are baptised into the death of Jesus; in baptism we are buried with him; and in baptism we are raised to newness of life (Romans 6:3,4). In baptism we take on the calling both to serve and to suffer, but we do so knowing that in all we do we share with Jesus, and that we are ceaselessly loved by God. In the words of today’s psalm, slightly adjusted, 

“They are bound to me in love,

therefore will I deliver them; 

I will protect them, because they know my Name.

They shall call upon me, and I will answer them; 

I am with them in trouble;

I will rescue them and bring them to honour.”

Sunday Reflection

10th October 2021, proper 23

Amos 5:6-7,10-15,   https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=500800588, Psalm 90:12-17,     https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=500800660, Hebrews 4:12-16,   https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=500800726, Mark 10:17-31,   https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=500800772

Reflection 

Finance Coin Home Business Investment Money Bank

How true! God’s word is sharper than a two edge sword! It can probe that join between the bone and flesh, it can pierce the gap between thought and deed, it can lay open the difference between dream and reality. God’s word strikes at the heart of the matter. And so it is when the rich man comes to a Jesus for advise.

This man wants to inherit eternal life – which almost sounds as if he wants it to be something he can receive as of right rather than by effort. In response to Jesus’s questioning, he confirms he has lived his life according to the law, he has not done anything that steps over the line. Yet when Jesus questions him about his wealth, it seems that his love for his wealth is more than his love for his neighbour.

Curiously Jesus doesn’t ask if he has kept the first of the Ten Commandments, those that relate to our relationship with God. 

And the man goes away disappointed, with no assurance of gaining  eternal life.  Jesus comments how hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God: for that is to have eternal life. And I think it is not just wealth here that is meant, but also power and privilege for the three are interlinked. Those with privilege are more likely to acquire wealth and power. Those with wealth are more likely to acquire power and privilege. Those with power to gain wealth and privilege. It is as if there is a set of rules that makes this so. We have heard so much in the news about people with money who can access government ministers to push their causes;  of multinationals who can use their power to promote use of products that harm the planet; of people who can hide their wealth to avoid paying taxes; of wealthy nations who can privilege vaccines for their citizens over those of poorer nations; of economic systems where the top 1%  holds 25% of all wealth (that’s in the UK) or 46% of the wealth when measured globally; of the longer life span that accrues to those who live in wealthier areas; or of privileged pupils who could access better education during the covid lockdown.

 From what we read in the gospels, the kingdom of God is radically different from any other kingdom, any other world-order, or any other culture. In God’s kingdom life is lived according to God’s ways, God’s logic, God’s culture. And even if squeezing a camel through the eye of needle seems impossible, for God, says Jesus, anything is possible. 

Why is it that the rich man could have so strictly followed all the rules, and yet been unable to share his wealth? Was it – and indeed is it – that wealth insulates us from the problems that other people face, that it blinkers our eyes so we don’t see the poverty that is out there, that it prevents us from understanding how hard life can be without power or privilege? 

Things were no different in the 8th century BCE in the days of Amos. Amos lambasted the people with the message God gave him. “Seek the Lord and live! … hate evil and love God, establish justice.” Amos warns that those who gained their wealth through taxing the poor and trampling on them, who deny the truth and scorn justice, who take bribes, rubbish the righteous, and push the needy aside. They will get their comeuppance and will not live in the grand houses they have built, nor drink the wines from their vineyards. 

I wonder what it would look like today to hate evil and love God and to establish justice?

Would it be in truthful journalism that exposes tax avoidance and wealth havens? Would it be in demanding the insulating of homes so that those least able to pay rising fuel bills can keep warm? Would it be in demanding government policies that would actually reduce carbon emissions? Would it be in ensuring equal access across the globe to covid vaccines? Would it be in avoiding goods produced by cheap labour? Would it be in ensuring we don’t buy products which involve the destruction of rainforests and mangroves? Would it be in curbing our carbon footprint to ensure a safe future for our children?

If all this sounds impossible, let’s ask God to help us. If giving up our wealth, our power, our privilege seems too hard, let’s ask God for help. If following Jesus seems too demanding, let’s ask God for help. For all things are possible for God. 

May God prosper the work of our hands – not to garner wealth, but to build God’s kingdom. 

Sunday Reflection

3rd October 2021, fifth Sunday in creationtide

Genesis 2:18-24

Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

‘This at last is bone of my bones

   and flesh of my flesh;

this one shall be called Woman,

   for out of Man this one was taken.’ 

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2: 5-12

Long ago God spoke to  our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,

‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them,

   or mortals, that you care for them? 

You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;

   you have crowned them with glory and honour, 

   subjecting all things under their feet.’

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,

‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,

   in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’

Mark 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Reflection

At the moment I am each week creating a short film for a series called Space on Sunday. These episodes are for young families in the temporary absence of Sunday School, and each week include a story related to the Sunday’s readings. I looked at this Sunday’s selection and it occurred to me that their overall theme was asking the question, What is it to be human? And for what purpose did God create us?

I think God, who loves the world they created, wanted to create a being that could love the world too. And in many ways God created a being that was God-like: humans have the ability to love the whole of creation; we can learn to understand and comprehend its diversity and its interconnectedness. Humans have the ability to be creative and imaginative, and we can take pleasure from things of beauty.  We can visualise what things were like in the past and what they could be like in the future. Humans can create and value relationships. We can not only produce off-spring but can plan and work to create a better future for them. 

 I think God created us to be co-creators of the ongoing development of the world as a living organism. And I think God created us as beings who can be in relationship with God. 

Turning to the readings. The extract from Genesis tells us that humans were not created to be either alone/ lonely nor to be left to cope on their own. Instead it is God’s intention that we should have helpers and partners. Helpers are not restricted to fellow humans, but include creatures – to which we could also add inanimate things such as the sun, wind and water which provide us with the power. 

The passage from Hebrews reminds us that in Jesus we have the perfect pattern or model of what a human should be. Further it reminds us that in Jesus we see the image of God, and that through his death and resurrection, Jesus redeems, or resurrects, that bit of God’s glory that exists somewhere in all of us, and so we are all called brothers and sisters of the one Heavenly Father. 

 Mark’s gospel gives us an example of the difference between how humans can be and how they should be; the difference between human weakness and God’s ambition for us. This is followed by an example of human narrowness and God’s openness. To be truly human is to be truly open to God.