This is the post excerpt.
I’ve always loved reading stories. I remember as a young child coming across a book of Aesop’s fables at my grandparents’ house. These are a collection of stories supposedly by an Ancient Greek – Aesop; you’re probably familiar with ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ and ‘The Boy who cried wolf’.
At first, I rather liked them. I was transported into the strange world of talking animals and my imagination got busy. But I soon became irritated by the way each ends with a fairly trite moral, which the story apparently illustrates…’be content with what you have’…’a kindness is never wasted’…they made the stories narrower and less exciting.
Today’s gospel story contains perhaps the biblical version of Aesop’s fables…a parable. In my bible it’s called ‘the parable of the sower’. A sower sows his seed – but it falls on lots of different types of ground. Only one type is ‘good ground’ and there the seed gives a fantastic yield.
If you look for a definition of a parable, you find this sort of thing…’a parable is a simple story that teaches or explains a moral or religious idea.’ To me that’s a rather sad little summary of something far, far richer. But it’s very typical of our age…we like things pinned down, categorized…explained.
We suggest that Jesus used parables to help simple people understand…so we look for a simple message. We assume each parable has one meaning, and our job is to work out what it is, to link each part of the story to what it represents.
In fact, in today’s reading the puzzled disciples ask Jesus to explain – and he obligingly tells exactly what kind of person each type of soil in the story represents.
However…if we look at where the reading comes from, we find a chunk is missing. A chunk where the disciples rather exasperatedly ask Jesus why he speaks in parables. Clearly, they don’t find them simple…and they want to know why he doesn’t just tell them the meaning in the first place.
Jesus’ reply is no simpler…but he seems to be saying, “I speak in parables because I want people to listen, to think, to discover for themselves.” I think parables are not meant to be simple, they’re meant to challenge us, to suck us into the story…to spark our imagination.
But the disciples still struggle…I can almost hear Jesus, in despair, saying ‘Ok, if you must have a simple explanation…you could understand it this way…’ And we, who like things cut and dried, often stick with that.
Today I’d like to offer another definition of parables…’parables are imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’ They’re fiction, they’re completely made up…but hopping around inside them is truth…real stuff. And because it’s in a strange, imaginary world it disrupts, it forces us to look at it differently.
So, for a moment let’s forget the four sorts of people represented by the four soils…and our expectation for Jesus to end…’and the moral of the story is…be good soil.’
Let’s go back into that imaginary garden and let the real toads surprise us.
Jesus said…’a sower went out to sow’.
Is this then, a story of a sower? If so, he’s an odd sort of sower. No prepared soil, neatly ploughed, for him. No careful use of precious seed…keeping it away from the path, the rocky ground and the hedgerow…where it’s less likely to grow.
So let’s wonder about a sower who seems to waste resources so foolishly, who seems happy to fling seed just anywhere. And if we think the sower might be God…what picture does that give us?
Does it suggest that ‘just anywhere’ is in fact exactly where God works? Does the casting of seed in rocky, barren, broken places suggest such places are part of God’s vision for his Kingdom?
If God is the sower, we have a picture of wasteful, profligate God. A God who knows it’s risky, foolish even, to throw seed onto poor, rocky soil, but who does so anyway. I’m reminded of Jesus who had to plant his seed again and again and again in the hearts of his closest followers; who saw them betray, deny and abandon him, but still cast his seed on them once more.
And I stop worrying about which type of soil each of us is, because I know that I’m all 4 at different times, and sometimes all at once. Often I don’t understand. All too easily I forget to spend time putting down roots, time with God, to support the rest of my life. Sometimes, however hard I try, the cares of the world get in the way.
But this is the story of the sower, who continues to throw seed at me, and you; who is willing to risk his love again and again in the hope of finding a small patch of good soil.
So, I let my mind wander in the imaginary garden of this parable. I go to the thorny edge of the field, and see, miraculously, some heads of wheat or barley growing amongst the brambles. And I recognise the ‘real toad’ of that definition…a precious truth. Because I’ve seen examples of God’s love flourishing in the most unlikely places…in the work of prison chaplains…in places of extreme poverty.
And the parable of the sower has escaped from the neat package with the moral at the end. It stays with me as I try to work out how to nurture God’s kingdom. It creeps into my decisions.
This is no more the ‘right answer’ than wondering how to be good soil. But I hope it might lead you into the imaginary garden of this parable…to be surprised by the real toad you come across.
And I pray that you do so trusting in the risky, wasteful, profligate love of our God.
Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the first bowl of porridge.
“This porridge is too hot!” she exclaimed.
She tasted the second bowl. “This is too cold,” she said.
So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge.
“Ahhh, this is just right,” she said happily and she ate it all up.
I’m sure you know the story…I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that Goldilocks belonged to the church of England. She seems to like the middle way…nothing too extreme.
A book I often dip into is Richard Giles’ ‘How to be an Anglican’. Looking at our approach to the bible, prayer, sacraments…he describes Anglicanism as ‘the middle way’. Between seeing the bible as literal truth at one extreme or useful moral stories at the other…between seeing the Eucharist as the actual body and blood of Christ or just a special remembrance of Jesus.
I rather like the idea of being the church ‘in the middle’, so I can sympathise with the crowd in today’s gospel.
John, with his strict, lifestyle and his uncompromising call to repentance, was too stern for them. Lighten up – they said – be part of the world – dance to our tune.
But when Jesus came, ready to dance…making every day a feast or a party…as long as everyone was invited…they struggled with that too. It seemed a bit too relaxed…they just wanted a middle way.
But if we look closer that’s not quite how it is. John and Jesus are preaching the same gospel…the kingdom of heaven is near and to engage with it you need to change.
John calls to people who have forgotten their need of God: telling them God’s kingdom is coming; sternly reminding them that being ready for it requires hard work…turning away from selfish worldly values. Jesus is the one who brings the Kingdom – but it looks very different to what people are expecting. Accepting it needs a serious change of perspective.
Perhaps the people rejecting both John’s harsh call to repentance and Jesus’ message of extravagant welcome and love, aren’t really looking for a middle way – but hoping to stay more or less as they are…because for most people, that’s the easy way.
The problem with taking either John or Jesus seriously was that it changed lives. Both pushed people into uncomfortable places…not of extremism…but of taking the gospel seriously. A place that required hard work and change.
And as usual the same challenge is there today. The challenge of spotting the difference between a valuable Anglican middle way…and the easy way of keeping things as they are. I think there are two issues facing the church today where we have to accept that change is needed, and there’s hard work ahead.
The first is how we emerge from this pandemic.
It’s forced us out of what we knew…forced us to be church in very different ways. We’ve been inventive and creative in our response. It feels in Adel that although we’ve lost much, faith is growing and flourishing, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Online worship is a wonderful opportunity for those who physically struggle to get to church each week. It’s been a way for the curious and nervous to tentatively engage with faith. It can’t replace worshipping together in our beautiful, holy building. But is it something we should try to hold on to in some way?
People have stepped out of their comfort zone to help lead that online worship. How do we maintain that increased lay leadership?
As things ease, there’s talk of ‘going back to normal’. But this is surely a time to be brave, to risk following our radical saviour, to dare to change. It’ll be a challenge though, and holding onto new ventures may mean letting go of some other things.
The second challenge facing the church, along with the whole country, is the realisation of how racist our society is…the question of our response to this. Have we confused taking the middle ground for hanging on to the status quo – because the alternative was just too challenging.
I look at lists of statues which upset people…not just slave owners, but the founder of scouting, explorers, greatly loved Prime ministers. I look at groups claiming to be protectors of those statues, but who are clearly just looking for violence. I think…there must be a middle way.
But although we probably do need a compromise on the question of statues…we can’t let one issue distract from the need for a radical change in the way people of colour are viewed and treated in Britain today.
I suspect the crowds listening to John and Jesus really wanted to welcome God’s kingdom…and be part of it. But perhaps they were scared of the change needed, or couldn’t face the task they saw ahead of them.
Both our reaction to racism, and our response to what lockdown has taught us, will need courage and commitment. They’re not easy, or comfortable. For most of us the easy route is the status quo. But we are followers of Christ.
There are challenging, and exciting discussions ahead about what ‘church’ looks like post-COVID. Please pray for our PCC as we begin to tackle them. Please get involved in the discussion – speak to me or someone on the PCC with your ideas. One or two of you already have – thank you.
I’ve begun to take seriously my ignorance on matters of race. I’m reading and listening. It would be good to do this in the company of others from the parish…not because we’re overtly racist, but because like many others, we’re waking up to how damaging the status quo is for many people.
I’ll be starting some discussions…do consider joining…contributing…helping this parish to be a small part of the change so long overdue.
And when this seems scary as well as exciting, remember Christ’s promise…when we are weary or heavy laden – he will share our burdens and give us rest.
My great, great grandfather, the impressively named Lowther Ellerby Ellis, was a primitive Methodist preacher in Derbyshire. I suspect he could empathise with those first disciples being spoken to in our reading, which is just the end of a passage telling them of all the hardships waiting for those who spread God’s word.
Between 1862 and 1903 my great, great grandfather (and presumably his family) preached in circuits all over the North of England. Each circuit consisted of many village chapels…travelling between them to preach was done mostly on foot. The pay was meagre, and was decided by his congregation – depending partly on how highly they valued his preaching! (I hope you are not getting ideas…) It was not unusual for such preachers to have to beg to support their families.
His experience was not unlike that of the first disciples: sent out to rely on the hospitality of those with whom they shared the good news; warned that their message would often be ignored, and they might well be persecuted for it. Like those first disciples, my great grandfather perhaps needed to hear today’s gospel…
…Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and who ever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.” In other words – disciples are not just talking about Jesus; they are taking God himself into people’s homes and lives.
For my great, great grandfather it must have been an exhausting life. I guess when he preached in a remote village somewhere, he hoped someone might invite him in for a meal, or even offer a bed for the night. But Primitive Methodists were on the whole poor, so this might mean sharing limited food round an extra mouth…juggling already overcrowded sleeping arrangements to squeeze in a visitor. I wonder how often preachers felt really welcome.
I suppose, as a church, we hear readings like this and identify with the disciples…the people with the gospel to share.
But Jesus finishes the passage with a striking phrase “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…will not lose their reward.” This sounds like an invitation to identify with those hearing the gospel, to think of ourselves as those receiving Christ’s messengers.
When I read it this week it felt like a prompt to look at how we as a church welcome people, and perhaps more importantly we view those we welcome.
Adel Parish Church is a welcoming church. I have heard many times from people who came tentatively and stayed because of the welcome. But I don’t think it’s ever something we can take for granted and stop working at.
I was discussing this with Kate Clarke the other day. She talked about the importance of welcoming people as part of the congregation. In a way that sounds obvious – of course everyone who comes is part of the congregation. But I think she was saying something quite deep about how we see people, and the effects this might have.
I think what Kate was saying is that people can be very unsure of themselves – they might not know why they’ve come. It’s very easy in that situation to feel as though everyone else has faith all sorted…The friendly ‘we haven’t seen you here before’…could subtly divide us, the followers of Christ, from them, the newcomer…
Welcoming newcomers ‘as part of the congregation’ is a very subtle difference that could have a big effect on the church. It seems to me that if we welcome newcomers as part of the congregation…we welcome them as fellow pilgrims, also on a journey. We look on them as fellow disciples of Christ.
If we welcome them as fellow disciples of Christ, we are saying that they could be bringing Christ to us. That in welcoming them in, we might be welcoming Christ, and through Christ, God our Father.
When we see welcome like that, we see not only that they might be changed by joining the church, we also expect that we, the church might be changed by them.
If everyone is a fellow Pilgrim, everyone has something to teach us about God. True hospitality is about shifting around to make room, about moving out of our comfortable normal to accommodate others. It’s about being willing to be inconvenienced. But as Jesus says, if we welcome his messengers, we welcome God into our lives, and the rewards are enormous.
Jesus said if we welcome a prophet we receive a prophet’s reward. If we’re ready to imagine those we welcome could be God’s prophets, we will perhaps be ready to let those prophets change us…and find ourselves blessed by God’s presence.
Apparently during lock-down, with church services forced on-line, many people who are not regular church goers are joining in. I wonder if this is partly because they don’t have to worry about what kind of welcome they will receive…they know they won’t have to explain why they have come…to worry about feeling different.
When we eventually return to something like normality, we need to think about how such people can still be part of our church. Not just because we want to share what we’ve gained from being part of this community – but because whoever welcomes a disciple of Jesus (however tentative a disciple they might be) welcomes Jesus himself.
However welcoming they are – churches will still, for many, be slightly scary places to enter. But if we continue to welcome people as ‘part of the congregation’, they might find it easier to stay. And we will be rewarded by discovering what they can teach us about God’s love.
Today, in somewhat strange circumstances, we celebrate our Patronal Festival, and remember our Patron Saint John the Baptist.
I think it’s quite surprising that there’s no epic movie…’The life (and death) of John the Baptist’…after all he’s a larger than life character…his every appearance in the bible a strange and wonderful story.
I’m sure most of you have a picture in your mind’s eye. It may be the baby leaping in his mother’s womb as he somehow recognised the presence of Christ. Or the wild prophet clothed in camel hair, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah…the man who, before anyone else, recognised Jesus for who he was…”look the lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world.”
Or it may be his cruel and rather gruesome end…suffering for speaking truth even to the rulers of the land.
But tonight we heard a different story that’s easily overlooked. And I think it’s a picture that not only speaks into our stories, but also tells us something very profound about the Christian faith. It’s a story of doubt.
John the Baptist didn’t only announce Jesus’ arrival and baptise people. He also pointed out what was wrong in their lives – what needed changing before they’d be ready for God’s kingdom. And he didn’t shrink from criticising even Herod – who had divorced his wife and married his brother’s wife – against Jewish Law. That was never going to end well.
So here we have John – languishing in prison, probably expecting execution would soon follow. Perhaps it’s not surprising that John begins to doubt. He’s fulfilled his role of announcing the Messiah who will bring in a new Kingdom. He had been completely sure that Jesus was that Messiah…but on his own in prison he begins to wonder…if God’s kingdom has come, why is Herod still in charge?
And so he begins to doubt. Was he wrong all along? After all – there’ve been many false prophets. It’s all very well suffering for the truth, but what if he had it all wrong, what if he’d led thousands astray – what if it was all for nothing?
So John, who announced with such certainty that Jesus was the Lamb of God, is driven to ask him – ‘are you the one – or should we look for another?’
On one level this is an encouragement for us. John the Baptist, the one with all the answers, the one who recognised Jesus when no one else did, is suddenly the one with all the questions. We’re shown that doubt is a normal part of a life of faith. We’re reminded that God uses faltering, fallible humans to carry his message.
I wonder though, whether this moment of doubt and questioning points to Christ just as deeply as the earlier certainty. Does it show that when we doubt and question… then we open our lives to a deeper understanding of Christ?
John seems to have responded almost instinctively to Jesus – knowing him to be from God. But although he responded to the person of Jesus, his question from prison suggests he already had a picture of what the Messiah should do and say…and Jesus didn’t quite fit with that.
Perhaps like many others he expected the Messiah to come in power and might, to overthrow false rulers, to impose God’s kingdom…and that wasn’t what he saw.
“Are you the Messiah?” he sends his disciples to ask Jesus – but Jesus doesn’t appear to answer the question at all. Instead he says, “go and tell John what you see and hear…the blind see; the lame walk; lepers are healed; the poor receive good news…”
This isn’t a message to restore John’s former certainty…it’s a message to alter and enlarge his understanding of Jesus and his kingdom. Yes – I am the Messiah you’ve been expecting – but you’ve misunderstood my ways.
For me this suggests doubt isn’t just a time when our faith falters, but a vital part of our growth as Christians.
At some point we come to a feeling that Jesus is ‘the one who is to come’…the idea of Jesus as Lord begins to make sense. But that first picture is just a tiny fraction of who Christ, the Son of God, the eternal word, is. In this life we’ll never see or understand the whole picture, but it’s by doubt and questioning of the picture we have, that we learn more.
Doubt can be scary. We can feel we are lesser Christians when we doubt. But if, rather than giving up on faith, we dare to ask with John, ‘are you the one who is to come?’ We open ourselves to deeper understanding.
I’ve seen this at work during our ‘Pilgrim’ discussion groups, started in a different world, and continuing on Zoom. As we study bible passages together, we share our questions and doubts, the times when life experience contradicts what we thought we knew of God.
Listening to what others think, just voicing our own puzzlement, we refine our picture of Christ, our understanding of his work.
If we’re open to our doubts, we’re ready to discard bits of our picture that don’t fit with our experience or the experiences of others. If we’re ready to look again at what we hear and see – in the bible – in life – we’re able to grow fraction by fraction, into a better understanding of the one we follow.
John the Baptist – man of faith and doubt – definitely a saint worth remembering.
‘Preachers are at their best when preaching about something they’re bad at – because then they know the struggle.’ So said Fr Timothy Radcliffe – Dominican friar, author of many books and wonderful preacher himself.
I offer his wisdom to you today, perhaps as an excuse, as I share the journey I’ve embarked on after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th.
We’ve just heard Jesus send out his disciples to ’cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons’. I suspect none of us take that as a literal instruction for today. In Jesus’ time, the sick and lepers represented the margins of society…so perhaps we hear it as a call to be healers and restorers on the margins of our society. But what does that mean in 21st century Britain?
I’ve known for years that in Britain, BAME people are marginalised by the system. Growing up in Middlesbrough and working in East Leeds mean that Adel is the most racially mixed place I’ve ever lived. But still, I knew…
…I knew about the over representation of BAME people in prison,
…their under representation in positions of power,
…their under representation as clergy in the Church of England
…the scandal of Windrush deportations…
I knew but I suppose it felt too big to be my problem. ‘The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few.’ What could I do? I focused on easier targets…speaking out at the rise of the BNP…criticising the US. So what’s different this time?
Like everyone I was shocked by that almost casual killing in America – but what really jolted me was a 2018 video that resurfaced on Facebook. A video of a white American woman quietly challenging an audience of white Americans.
“Stand up”, she said, “if you would be happy to be treated the way black people are treated in this country.” No one stood –but their expressions suggested they knew how black Americans are treated – and certainly wouldn’t be happy to be treated that way.
I might have moved on, with prayers for America, and relief that I’m British. But her words stayed with me…made me uncomfortable. Not because I knew and did nothing, but when I realised I’ve never bothered to find out.
I’ve never studied, read more widely…but worse – I’ve never even asked my friends what it’s like to live with the everyday racism that’s part of our society. So last week I did. I asked two of my friends about their daily experiences of living as educated, successful, black women in Britain.
Of course some of you live this every day; others may be way ahead of me; but just in case I’m not the only one struggling, I’m going to share a little of what they said.
“On TV, in work, schools, institutions that govern our lives, we’re not represented. Black role models and history aren’t mainstream. Messages about black people relate to immigration, poverty in Africa, underperforming schools in BAME areas…all negative.
I struggle to find shows, films and dolls where my children can see people that look like them. Another issue is the beauty industry – as a woman I feel marginalised because I can’t find a hairdresser or hair products in a mainstream shop. For black girls growing up…all their friends talk about hair appointments, makeup they’ve bought…but they remain silent because they’re embarrassed at having to go to Harehills to get those things.
I don’t frequently speak about the issue myself as we are either dismissed or people say things that water down the issue, bringing up other forms of discrimination as if to prove that what we’re highlighting really isn’t that important. I’m made to feel I have a chip on my shoulder.
As in the argument of ‘Black lives matter’ vs. ‘All lives matter’, people just don’t want to stay with what you’ve raised, they must point to something else. So eventually you just keep quiet.
Underlying all this is the deep hurt caused by the enslavement of Africans that led to loss of African heritage, black people having no wealth, continued explicit racism and covert messages that black people are not as good. Whilst England remembers the Holocaust every year, it doesn’t give black people the healing that would be brought by remembering their suffering through slavery.
The tragedy of what happened to George Floyd personally brings to the fore all the challenges that I and people with my skin colour face every day – explicit and covert messages from society throughout our whole lives that we are not as intelligent, beautiful, hard working, worthy, as ‘white’ people.
Just two people’s everyday experiences…shocking. Now I have stories rather than statistics, and as Jesus knew so well – stories are what change us.
And I still feel overwhelmed – the harvest seems even more plentiful, what can my tiny bit of labour do? But I do know that when Jesus told his disciples to pray for more labourers – they found they were themselves the answer to that prayer. They were sent out to heal and restore. They were sent out with message that God’s love is for everyone.
Humanity has never found it easy to accept that we cannot love God and hate our neighbour – but that is the message we are given.
So what does Jesus’ commission look like for me today? Well Jesus didn’t just value everyone equally, he challenged a system that didn’t…and I believe he calls me to do the same. And I’m starting with this definition of anti-racism…‘the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it – even in yourself.’
So I’ve listened to my friends – acknowledging that although there are other forms of discrimination and hardship – this is their story, and I’m not qualified to speak only to listen and lament.
I’ve found black voices to listen to – and heeded their advice to educate myself…to listen and read. And if you find yourself on a similar journey – perhaps we can share resources and encourage one another.
What a great story…suddenly…the rush of a violent wind…tongues of fire…people speaking every language…the gift of the Holy Spirit…
…it’s easy to get into discussion about the details…did the people outside the house hear the wind? Did every disciple speak every language…or each person a different one? What does the writer mean by ‘divided tongues as of fire’?
But to me the Pentecost story has always felt like someone is trying to find words to describe something so new that the words don’t exist. ’It was like…it was as though’ they say – using metaphors and symbols to try to grasp this new experience of the Spirit of God.
The church has been celebrating Pentecost since at least the first century…and has added other symbols and metaphors along the way. I’d like to explore some of those today.
Firstly the dove – so often used as a sign for the Holy Spirit. Why a dove? Apart from its link with God’s spirit, the dove appears in the bible in the story of Noah and the Ark. When the rain stopped and Noah wanted to know whether the waters were draining away, he sent out a dove. The important sign for Noah came when the dove didn’t return.
The dove, it seems, went on ahead of Noah. It showed that he should follow, into this new world. When the first Christians received the gift of the Holy Spirit, it led them out into the unknown. It led them from praying and worshipping together, in the comfort of companionship. It forced them out to share the good news of Jesus Christ all around the world. It led them to found new churches in new places.
Secondly – Whitsun clothes. My grandmothers, both born in the early years of the 20th century, used to tell stories of Whitsun – as Pentecost was often called. It was something celebrated by the whole community. There were often fairs and parties – but mainly they remembered it as the time when girls got new dresses – one for best and one for everyday. Lovely, they felt so smart, but always a bit big – to grow into. After all they had to last the year.
What a fantastic image for Pentecost, a time when we get our new clothes as Christians…when we are ‘clothed with the Holy Spirit’. New clothes that make us feel good, that give our faith a bit of confidence perhaps, but clothes that are always a bit big – to allow for growth.
And finally – all those different languages. I have to admit this part of the Pentecost story is a bit I struggle with. That gift of spontaneously speaking new languages isn’t one I’ve come across outside of those first disciples…and I’ve always found language learning very difficult. As a child I could memorise lists of vocabulary, but found it very embarrassing actually using them aloud.
Perhaps though, this too is useful as a metaphor, a symbol. Being able to speak a new language fits us to travel to a new country. It’s about going somewhere new, encountering new people. If we can speak the language, we can share our story with the people we meet.
The Holy Spirit as a dove…going ahead of us, leading us out from the church we know, to the rest of our world.
The Holy Spirit as new clothes, as something we grow into…as something that gives us the confidence to share our faith, and in sharing, to grow.
The Holy Spirit as something that gives us the words we need to share Christ’s story with everyone…in ways they can understand…even if they don’t speak ‘church’.
Pentecost 2020 seems a good time to rediscover these metaphors, these symbols for the Christian experience of the Holy Spirit.
Because in a way we are like Noah in the Ark, waiting for the floodwaters to recede. He was waiting to step out into a world that must have been different to what he’d left. He only knew that where the dove had gone, there was a new world waiting. For Noah, there was no way back to the world he’d known – he could only follow the dove onwards.
It is becoming clear that ‘after lockdown’ is not going to look like ‘before lockdown’. For some of us, this is directly linked to COVID 19 – for some it might be because during this time we’ve lost loved ones or received news that has changed our lives. Whatever the reason, there is no way back. That’s as true for the church as for other organisations – but as Christians we are led onwards by the Holy Spirit.
We’ve already had to find new ways of doing things, a new language if you like. This will be even truer as things open up, but with new constraints in place. We’re still called to share God’s love with our community, to share Jesus’ story with those who haven’t heard it…but we may need a new language in which to do this.
The good news is that this Pentecost, as always, we’re offered new clothing…the power and confidence offered by the Holy Spirit. And this new clothing doesn’t quite fit – it’s bigger than we are, to allow for our growth.
In many ways this strange time has already been a time of growth, as so many of us have found new ways to be involved in running our church. I think in the weeks and months to come we will need to build on that. As, led by the Holy Spirit, we leave the lives, and the church we knew and move into the new country ahead.
I wonder – if you clench your fist – what does it mean to you?
Apparently the ancient Assyrians used the same word for prayer as that for unclenching a fist.
Prayer has been on my mind this week. We’re in Ascensiontide – the 9 days between our celebration of Jesus ascending back to the Father, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In our reading we heard how the tiny, early church spent those days ‘devoting themselves to prayer’.
Because of this, since 2016, our Archbishops have invited us to make these days a special time of prayer. Their movement ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ has spread to other churches and around the world.
Later, I’ll suggest some ways we can be part of that wave of prayer. But first I’d like to spend a few minutes thinking about prayer itself – so, back to that clenched fist…
A few of us have started a discussion course looking at the Lord’s Prayer. In the first session we spent time thinking about why we pray. We thought that it’s to do with opening ourselves to God…and in this context I find that clenched fist quite helpful.
Unclenching a fist allows us to let go…
…I think though, that our clenched fists more often hold on to things we don’t want to admit to, places we’re scared to open up to God’s light and love.
If prayer is unclenching our fists, then it is perhaps the process of letting God into the very heart of who we are. And that’s not easy. We hold fast to what we know – even if we’re not proud of it.
We know our faults, our failures, but sometimes it’s easier to think ‘that’s just how it is with me.’ We feel safe with what we know – even if what we know isn’t life giving. We cling to it, because letting it go means accepting the possibility of a different and unknown future.
Because once we have unclenched our fists and let go, we sit with open, empty hands. Hands that are ready to receive.
Letting go, of even those last layers of selfishness, leaves us in some ways, empty. And once we’ve emptied out some of the anger, the wants that preoccupy us, the things we’re ashamed of, we’re left with space.
Many great Christians have recognised that space within themselves as a longing to encounter God…a space that’s in all of us, if only we can uncover it. If we can truly unclench our fists, they suggest, praying becomes letting God himself inhabit our lives.
This is one of the many mysteries of faith that is hard to put into words…and as is often the case, I find myself looking to poets to help. R.S. Thomas – a Welsh poet priest writes of the change in his prayer as he aged…
‘Hear my prayer, O Lord, hear my prayer.
As though you are deaf, mortals have kept up their shrill cry, explaining your silence by their unfitness.
It begins to appear this is not what prayer is about.
It is the annihilation of difference, the consciousness of myself in you, of you in me…’
For me, that journey from talking to God, to just opening up my life to let him in is not easy…I guess it’s a life’s work. But I have found that picture of a fist unclenching a really powerful one this week.
Those disciples, waiting, probably fearfully, in the upper room, knew only that they were waiting for a gift from God. It seems to me that in ‘devoting themselves to prayer’ there must have been some opening of hands, some letting go of what had been. So that, come Pentecost there was room in their lives for the overwhelming presence of God as Holy Spirit.
Over the coming week, Christians all around the world will be making a special effort to pray for God’s kingdom to come. We are invited to join them.
There are many resources online, a prayer journal, an interactive prayer adventure map for young people – check out the website; or download the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ App.
But if, like me, you are wearying a little of sitting at a computer, there’s also chance to use our beautiful churchyard as a place of prayer. There are prayers at various points on the benches; a prayer trellis at the porch, where prayer requests can be left, and shared; a prayer garden of beautiful painted stones; there will be bags of prayer crafts for children left out each day…
…do make use of this ancient place of prayer – and encourage others to do so too.
Or maybe you would just like to find a comfortable chair in a quiet spot…clench your fists…then slowly unclench them…offering everything to God. Then sit with open hands and an open heart. You may just find that you are more relaxed, less anxious…but there is always the possibility, as those first disciples found, of being surprised by the presence of God.
In our young people’s group on Sunday we thought about what questions we’d like to ask Jesus. One brilliant suggestion was “Jesus, are the stories you told true?”
I have to say I don’t think they are literally true. Take today’s gospel…I don’t think this particular man and his sons ever existed…I think Jesus told stories because they’re good ways to teach us about ourselves and about God.
Today’s story, the prodigal son, is one of my favourites – every time I read it I learn something new. I suppose it’s about running away from God and coming home to God, but there’s lots more in there too.
What does this story say to us today? Well for our All Age service I asked three artists in the congregation to answer this in the form of pictures. For our virtual service we had the pictures on the screen – you may want to look at them as you read.
Marjorie chose to draw the prodigal son at his lowest point. He’s sitting, in rags, on a rock in a muddy field. He’s thinking about the pigs he’s looking after – and how the only thing he has to eat is their food.
Marjorie linked her picture with the Lord’s Prayer – where we’re taught to ask God for our daily bread. God wants us to be happy with that and not to ask for more.
She says this is the pivotal point in the story, because it’s the point where the son decides to go home. She says he realises he doesn’t even have daily bread, whereas his father’s servants have all they need.
Does this story teach us that what we want is not always something that will make us happy? Does it remind us what ‘give us this day our daily bread’ should really mean?
Lucy’s picture shows the son returning home. He looks awful: ragged, hungry, ashamed. But he’s desperate and he’s thinking about what he can possibly say to his father.
Far in the distance – a tiny figure is shown – running towards him. The father – full of joy because he didn’t know his son was alive.
For me this is a reminder of a wonderful truth that I hope and trust in. That even when we wander off and forget about God, he is always waiting and hoping with open arms for us to return. We don’t need the right words to say we’re sorry – it’s enough that we’ve recognised our mistake and turned back to him.
Olivia – from our junior church – has also shown this bit of the story. But her picture is very different, it shows father and son, side by side, holding hands – both are smiling. There’s no sign of the son’s wretchedness or embarrassment.
Olivia has focused on the Father and how he’s feeling. She says he’s grateful that his son has come back to him. He forgives his sins and they’re together again.
Has Olivia discovered an amazing truth that coming back to God doesn’t just make us happy – it makes God happy too? That is certainly something to ponder this week.
In both Lucy, and Olivia’s picture – tiny and distant, is the other son, the one who stayed all the time, helping his father. It seems he can’t bring himself to be happy…because this welcome doesn’t feel fair. I wonder if he thinks his brother should be punished – at least a little.
Is that a reminder that trusting God will welcome us back when we wander off – means accepting God will welcome other people back too? Even if they seem to have strayed much further than us. That welcome will happen, we can join in – or we can stay on the outside.
We never hear what happened to the elder son at the end of this story…but as someone who could sulk for England as a child, I like to think that in a day or so he realised he’d run away from the father, almost as much as his brother had, and came back to find his own welcome, and join the party.
We’ve always loved walking. When our children were young we discovered some walk books by Jack Keighley. Wonderful walks, clear instructions and beautiful hand-drawn maps. And the best bit…his little notes pointing out interesting things we’d otherwise have missed. These reached new heights one spring morning above Gunnerside when we read…”This old stone trough has a small resident population of water beetles, and a large seasonal population of tadpoles”…we looked in – and sure enough, there were the tadpoles!
We’ve done that walk so many times now, we don’t need the book, but last year we found one of his walks we’d never done and set off with excitement. We were soon struggling…fences, stiles, buildings weren’t where they should be…and we realised the books are 30 years old. We were in the same place…but the landscape had changed…
That’s true for Thomas and Philip in our gospel reading. On the night before he dies, Jesus tries to prepare the disciples for life without him: for a life of building his church without him physically present. He tells them not to worry about the future because he is going ahead of them – and they know the way.
But Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
They’ve just got used to following Jesus…are realising that he’s the messiah – the one sent by God. They’re beginning to graps his message – of love, forgiveness, putting the last first…
But however it happens, they expect a Messiah who wins, who defeats God’s enemies. Now Jesus says he’s going to be betrayed and killed – and he’s just letting it happen. The whole landscape of belief has changed…how can they possibly know the way?
I think that’s a feeling we recognise at the moment. We’re in our homes, we’re with immediate family, we only go to local shops. In some ways our lives are all too familiar, and yet the whole landscape has changed.
When this began, I thought about the inconvenience, I worried how long it might last, I wondered about summer holidays, our children’s travel plans…but I pictured eventually a return to the life we knew. That seemed ok – endure, and it will pass.
It’s becoming increasingly obvious though, that life after lockdown will not look like life before. And it’s unnerving, frightening even. We don’t know where we’re going – so how can we know the way?
Perhaps part of our problem – in the affluent West at least – is that we’ve generally forgotten about the precarious nature of life. We’ve persuaded ourselves that humans can control everything…that economies can keep growing. We talk of ‘beating’ diseases as if we believe one day we’ll ‘beat death’.
We know about inequalities, about climate change…we support food banks, we recycle…but we persuade ourselves that these problems can be tackled within life as it is…with minor changes… I think we’re used to knowing our destination.
COVID 19 has turned all that upside down. It’s revealed the scandalous inequalities in society, in a way I hope can’t be ignored. But it’s also shown that ‘good’ things at the heart of society – travel, holidays, shared sport, music, theatre, worship – will not necessarily always be there in the form we know. We do not know where we are going – so how can we know the way?
What does our faith have to say in such times? Well first, perhaps we can understand as never before how the disciples felt! But also that faith is not about easy answers, about knowing exactly where we’re going – but about trusting the one who walks alongside us.
Philip says to Jesus – “show us the Father and we will be satisfied”… show us some divine vision…show us our destination, show us how it ends, then we won’t mind the present difficulties…
But Jesus replies, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father…I am the way.”
So if we want to find our way – we’re told not to look for God reaching in to our world and sweeping our problems away – but a God who joins us in our problems, who loves, weeps, laughs, forgives, serves – even when this leads to death, the ultimate removal of life as we know it.
And a God who shows us that if we follow him to that death, for us perhaps the death of our way of life, we will see that somehow it leads to new life…even if we’re still discovering what that new life looks like.
Does that tell us that the Christian way through this is to live it the best way we can? Perhaps we have to face the loss, maybe even to let go of things we thought would last forever…to lament and grieve, but then to work out how to live as followers of Christ in the new world that emerges.
Jesus said “whoever has seen me has seen the Father…I am the way…no one comes to the Father except by me.”
As I read somewhere…”What we know of God in Jesus Christ, is that God has chosen not to be God without us.”
If Jesus is the way, then the way to God is a way that has to be found through living ordinary human lives. And if Jesus is the way – then we are now the way. We, the ordinary, anxious, bewildered humans who are his followers.
The good news is that, unlike those walk books of ours, Jesus doesn’t go out of date, because he’s a person, not a set of instructions. If we go back to his teaching, stories, examples of weeping, laughing, loving, caring, forgiving…and apply those to the new life that is emerging…we have hope that we will begin, together, to find our way.
Well here I am – preaching to a computer screen again. Worrying that when all this is finally over I might only recognise your voices and not your faces! Also wondering whether you’ll all be turning up to worship in your pyjamas, or running gear…or perhaps still eating your breakfast…I suspect we are a rather different congregation to the one that used to meet in Adel Parish church at 10am on Sunday mornings.
Today’s gospel reading is, I think, about identity, about who we are, who we should be – and how we work that out.
And I think that in many ways working out who we are has lately become even more challenging. So much of our identity comes from how we fit into the world around us but suddenly large parts of that has been taken away.
With social activities stopped, our appearance is less relevant…and we can’t get to hairdressers or salons. The cars we’re so proud of are sitting unused; we can’t take our usual holidays. Work, paid and voluntary, has stopped or, for some, changed almost out of recognition. Many have lost part of their role as grandparents. In some ways it’s quite hard to know who we are.
The gospel gives us the picture of Jesus as our shepherd, calling us if only we can recognise his voice…and then of Jesus as a gate, the right gate we need to find and enter. But as our lives have shrunk – and the outside world become more distant – I was reminded of a saying from Catherine of Siena, whose feast day was on Wednesday. If you shared in Ruth’s Compline you will have heard it.
Catherine said, “Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”
I love this, because it suggests to me that God has put our true identity within us, that we are called to find it, rather than create it.
After all – we hear right at the beginning of the bible that God created us ‘in his own image’. Not what we look like…I suspect there’s only Iain F-W amongst our congregation who could actually land a film role as God…but I believe we are like God in the potential we have to create, to dream, to love, to forgive.
“Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”
I think it’s a good picture for these times when our worlds have shrunk. When confined to homes – with just close family, or alone – it’s good to remember that our identity comes from the God who created us – not from the world. It’s already within us – the challenge is to find it.
Some of us suddenly have much more time on our hands…and have found it a gift. I have heard of hobbies resurrected…of creative talents rediscovered. Many gardens are better tended than they have been for years – and we are experiencing the joy of sitting in them, just revelling in nature.
I know an awful lot of tidying and cleaning jobs that have been put off for years are finally getting done. And for some of us it may be a reminder of the clutter we can do without, or rediscovery of the people and treasures that once enriched our lives.
When I asked some children in our first ‘on-line’ Junior church what is good about ‘lock-down’ they almost all said, ‘more family time’. Are we rediscovering our identity as mothers, fathers, sons and daughters?
For some though, life seems busier than ever. If you’re struggling with looking after young children whilst you try to work from home, life must be very difficult.
And many of us are bewildered by how busy we feel. Apart from being very slow to work out the new technologies, I shouldn’t have lots more to do – yet it seems impossible to do everything I feel I ought. And I’ve heard the same from others. One of our congregation remarked in an email…”not sure quite why everything seems busier than normal.” I feel a little overwhelmed at times – and talking to others – I’m not alone.
I wonder whether that’s to do with disorientation, the loss of identities we’d constructed for ourselves. Perhaps this strange time holds a challenge to begin to work out who we really are…who God created us to be.
And I do think the answer is found partly within ourselves if we can begin to recognise it. At the end of today’s reading Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
What is it that gives us true, abundant life? That surely is where we find our identity. And when we’ve discovered that – the life will overflow to those around us. “Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”
So in all this strange, busy, inaction…I’m trying to spend some time reflecting. In place of the things I can’t do, trying out some of the things I can…and seeing which bring life.
I’m thinking about what I miss and why. Resolving to spend more time on those things once it’s possible again.
I’m thinking about the things I’m quite glad not to be doing and wondering whether I should carry on with them once I can.
Perhaps this time of being closed off from the world we knew is a time for looking inwards and searching for the people God created us to be. And just as the sheep recognise the shepherd – we can recognise that person, because when we are that person we feel properly alive – with the life Jesus brings.